Behavior Change: How Does It Happen?

Change. You and I are in the change business, more typically called by us—conversion or transformation or repentance. In our preaching, teaching, leading and pastoral care, we assume that, with God, positive/healthy/redemptive change is possible.

Yet, we lament how hard change is, how little significant behavior change actually occurs in ourselves and in others. Apostle Paul names it: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7: 18,19)

I found some help from the current research on the brain. Specifically, I pass along some findings noted in an article, “The Neuroscience of Leadership,” by Jeffrey Schwartz and David Rock (Strategy and Business, Spring, 2009)

Let’s begin by understanding the pain in change. One part of the brain (basil ganglia) is hardwired for routine, set habits, and familiar activity. It will set up a fierce fight against desired changes in behavior. When the prefrontal cortex, the hard working part of the brain, wants to implement some important change, expect the basil ganglia part of the brain to rise up with a resounding, “No. Don’t do that! Stay with what’s comfortable and predictable!” This part of the brain makes strong efforts to sabotage. Because of this persistent resistance, Skinner’s incentives, “carrot and stick” approaches to changing behavior do not last. Neither do, according to Rock and Schwartz, the approaches to change from humanistic psychology that depend on empathetic listening and self-understanding.

From this brain research, what is required in change are three things. One, from the prefrontal cortex, there must be a sustained focus of repetitive attention on the desired changes. This means practicing this new behavior regularly, even daily. From such focused attention, even in the face of discomfort and impulse to return to familiarity and routine, new patterns and connections in the brain will be formed. And eventually, the new pattern drops to the basil ganglia, becoming habitual.

Think of learning to drive a car or learning to play a song on the piano. If the repetitive focus of the prefrontal cortex remains strong during the disorienting phrase and does not yield to the resistance, eventually our driving the car or playing the song becomes more routine and comfortable. That is, the behavior comes more from the basil ganglia than prefrontal cortex.

A second insight, relevant to our work, is the place of small peer-learning groups. For example, the Toyota company has fostered behavior change through workplace sessions in each unit that occur weekly, even daily. In these meetings, workers talk about how to make things better. In the interactive, collaborative process, they are training the brain to make new connections. In fact, Rock and Schwartz note, “These shop-floor or meeting-room practices resonate deeply with the innate predispositions of the human brain.”

A third finding I find significant is the importance of self-direction in change of behavior. Any pressure to change from others, as in advice-giving, will be resisted. So for lasting change to occur, a person must choose it. This is why coaching is effective. A coach supports and honors the self-direction of the client by asking curious questions and wondering with the client about options. The motivation for change must be from self, for self-chosen goals.

I take away from this article these three things to ponder: the crucial role of regular practicing; the importance of peer-learning; and the importance of self-direction, for our change and the change we hope for in others.

One Response to Behavior Change: How Does It Happen?

  1. Ben Wagener says:

    Thanks for encouraging me to return to my familiar practice of Centering Prayer in a silent place and reading again Cynthia Bourgeault. It is so easy for me to get on with my daily list yet leave out prayer even when I write down “prayer” first.
    Ben

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