Changing Behaviour is Trickier Than it Looks

15 Mar

Guest post today on change, by Stewart Hase

Key points

1. Leaders often underestimate the difficulty of changing behaviour.
2. People are naturally resistant to change for sound biological reasons.
3. Teachers, trainers, coaches and managers are mistaken in thinking that well presented logic will win hearts and minds.
4. Most change efforts fail miserably.
5. Leadership behaviour can make the difference by changing habits over time.
6. Changing behaviour takes careful planning and good techniques.Recently, I have been surprised (again) that leaders don’t understand the complexity of behaviour change. As a consequence they become frustrated when people don’t do what they have told or do what is expected.While it is true that humans have a history of adaptation to their environment, the process is relatively slow: generational rather than situational. We are hard wired to resist rapid change.

The reason for this is simple and based on biological imperatives that are several thousand years old and belong to a world where primitive drives such as hunting, gathering, procreation and survival involved high risk activities. These activities require a lot of energy and, hence, we find ways to be energy conserving. In addition, we have a finite capacity in short and working memory that limits our attention and a significant task like change is not likely to be a natural priority.

It may be unpalatable to many but the same primitive and self-interested drives still preoccupy our species: it’s just that the behaviours associated with meeting these drives are more complex compared to pre-agrarian times. Despite having modified our environment and our control over our circumstances, we have yet to throw off this tendency to preserve energy.

Energy preserving behaviour is easily seen through the phenomenon of habits. These automatic behavioural scripts mean that we do not have expend effort to rewrite behavioural scripts for similar, and even not so similar, circumstances. Humans mostly like routine. We also tend to have quite durable values, attitudes and beliefs. I am sure you can think of many ways you demonstrate this capacity daily.

Nothing wrong with doing this, we are all just practicing an ingrained drive to survive. Recognising that this is the normal human condition is important and helps explain why we are so resistant to change. Recent research shows that changing a habit takes about three months before the new habit becomes, well…..a habit!

Changing attitudes, values and beliefs (collectively known as schema) is even more tricky and beyond the scope of this blog. In short, though, the best and quickest way to change schema is to change the person’s behaviour. The easiest way to increase resistance is to challenge someone’s schema because they will automatically find arguments to support these holy cows. We often talk about winning hearts and minds. We should, in my view, think about winning hearts by changing behaviour. But more about this in another article, even though the answer is still found in effective leadership.

I have been involved in clinical psychology work for around 30 years in one way or another. Countless people I have met have been in dreadful pain with depression, anxiety, addictions and other good reasons to change their behaviour to improve their lot. Nonetheless many have resisted change and, for various and often complex reasons, decided that they would rather stay in pain rather than ‘risk’ doing things differently. As might be expected others are very motivated to try something new even though it is hard work. Pretty well everyone needed intensive help to do this.

Sometimes people do change spontaneously but often in response to a traumatic or extremely enlightening experience that accelerates learning. Mostly motivation to change is enhanced and the required skills are obtained through the resulting expenditure of effort.

So, in the face of a natural human propensity to resist change why would anyone be motivated to change when: they are relatively healthy; their habits seem to be quite functional in the absence of any personally relevant evidence to the contrary; they are not experiencing any incongruence between their attitudes and their behaviour-in other words their behaviour makes sense to them and they feel comfortable about it; and they are being sufficiently rewarded in a variety of ways to keep on doing what they do?

I think most change agents, teachers, trainers, coaches, and managers overvalue the impact of what they do and attempt largely ineffective approaches in their attempts to change other people’s behaviour. Mostly we think that logical argument, well presented reasons attached to emotional messages, policies, procedures and simply telling people will win people over. We are often surprised and then frustrated to find that what we are doing does not work.

So, changing behaviour, whether it is our own or someone else’s, needs to be planned carefully. It requires good techniques and, we need to be motivated which is often emotionally mediated. If it is another person we need to get their attention.

Leaders can get attention by: having a good relationship with the person in the first place; being prepared to have difficult conversations; providing clear description of the desired behaviour; coaching where necessary; establishing an action plan with timelines; providing support; intervening when there are difficulties; providing resources; ensuring the desired behaviour becomes part of the KPIs (or whatever performance system is used) for that person or persons); and follow-up.

Remember too that people will find change easy and others will have reasons to be resistant. Whatever the case, we need to have a clear process that creates a reason for the person to spend energy on change.

Dr Stewart Hase

Guest author Dr Stewart Hase is a registered psychologist and has a doctorate in organisational behaviour as well as a BA, Diploma of Psychology, and a Master of Arts (Hons) in psychology.

Stewart blogs at

48 Responses to “Changing Behaviour is Trickier Than it Looks”

  1. Doug Quixote March 15, 2012 at 8:19 am #

    Hilarious. Women have been working on changing men’s behaviour (more specifically, that of their spouses) and parents have been working on changing their children’s behaviour, for thousands of years.

    Dr Hase may think that he has discovered the wheel . . .


    • Stewart March 18, 2012 at 9:50 pm #

      Not at all. Just that it is round.


      • doug quixote March 18, 2012 at 10:41 pm #

        I’m glad we’ve got that sorted out; the square ones were proving difficult.

        Exactly what are you getting at in this article? That “leaders” need to be more patient with their errant flock? As the kiddies might say, “durhh”.


  2. 730reportland March 15, 2012 at 9:59 am #

    Nice post Stewart and Jennifer. — An added point, when faced with over whelming evidence, data or other proof, those of `faith` based arguments, start using `factoids` or `micro-details` to steer debate away from the central issue and sending the debate into `waffle`. Those debating against the `faith` based argument, cannot win the `faith` based side over. All that happens is the `faith` based side `believe-harder`. Carl Rove successfully trained the right to use this tactic on other non-religion topics, trickle down economics, global warming, abortion, voluntary euthanasia, and more. This successfully holds back progress of the majority by increasing so-called confusion.


    • Jennifer Wilson March 15, 2012 at 10:23 am #

      Stewart wrote it all. I agree it’s impossible to “win” against faith.


  3. 730reportland March 15, 2012 at 10:13 am #

    Sorry to back to back post. But just to be clear, I consider abortion + voluntary euthanasia as `personal-medical-decisions`, between patient and doctor only. Also add to my list above, evolution science and Charley Darwin.


  4. Hypocritophobe March 15, 2012 at 10:26 am #

    Try pumping a tyre up in Wolfe creek with nothing but faith.
    Get back to me,later………………


  5. paul walter March 15, 2012 at 2:51 pm #

    Doug, there is little doubt they’d say the same of us.
    As for the rest, it’s pretty obvious in general and well-applies in real world situations, such as climate change denialism and concern for asylum seekers, where advocate foot-tapping and impatience (quite correct this, many human lives are at risk), has only increased resistance in those fearful of losing in some sense their sense of self determination, in what appears to be a move uncaring of this.
    The hard wiring factor is in play, advocates feel threatened by the inhumanity of the situation involving refugees, or denial of the same basic science that gives us polio cures and 767’s; the others feel threatened by what manipulators like Howard suggest are impractical sentimentalist “treehuggers” or “open borders” prospective changes to some thing basic, Australian’s control of their home patch, which could create a situation where they become in effect refugees in a place now controlled by others.
    In fact, illogical change IS being imposed, but more likely through defence pacts and so called free trade agreements, apparatus of neo liberalism driven by the one percent of Wall st, City of London and now China, as well as local interests, sold on big population and unscientific ecological processes,soley as to “business opportunity”, once ecological and humanitarian concerns and the ability to refer development to them, have been legally eliminated.
    As for the rest, crudely, what 730 reportland says. We are told we must behave in certain ways because to do other wise might offend sky-people.
    When proof is requested that we behave on the basis of the presence of sky-people (eg a personal visit visible to all), we are told to visit the bible where we are offered, as primary evidence, a two thousand year old uncorroborated story about someone who’d been mutilated to death, supposedly dead for two or three days and suddenly hopped up, rolled a huge tomb rock away and reckoned “Bob’s your uncle!”
    And those of us who remain sceptical see our friends subject to slapple suits by proponents of the sky-person theory, to suppress the public airing of queries of the so-called evidence proffered as to it, let alone real world implications of adherence to it by its proponents. We are to be be reassured by this?
    730 reportland suggests termination of pregnancy, for example, is something strictly between a doctor and patient. The sky cultists say “no”.
    Some old guy who happens to wear a hat first maybe worn by some other old bloke a couple of thousand years ago, reckons he’s therefore “infallible” and the zygote can consciously do the LondonTimes cryptic crossword from conception, so despite all the biological evidence to the contrary, the woman must remain a walking incubator for nothing more than the comfort of the old guy and his insecure followers. And any cavills are answered with a stern, “Obey or you’re self evidently a bad person and we’ll punish you”.
    This especially after sceptics realise a whole raft of policies based on imaginings as to what the sky-people might want are offloaded, that also impact the lives of the sceptics whose questionings have been suppressed through embarrassment at the want of any actually effective answer to them, of which 730 reportland’s issue is only the most obvious, illogical and blatant, will be be imposed anyway,regardless of even the most reasonable objection.


  6. doug quixote March 15, 2012 at 4:45 pm #

    This passage from George Orwell is instructive :

    “Tolstoy was not a saint, but he tried very hard to make himself into a saint, and the standards he applied to literature were other-worldly ones. It is important to realize that the difference between a saint and an ordinary human being is a difference of kind and not of degree. That is, the one is not to be regarded as an imperfect form of the other. The saint, at any rate Tolstoy’s kind of saint, is not trying to work an improvement in earthly life: he is trying to bring it to an end and put something different in its place. One obvious expression of this is the claim that celibacy is “higher” than marriage.

    If only, Tolstoy says in effect, we would stop breeding, fighting, struggling and enjoying, if we could get rid not only of our sins but of everything else that binds us to the surface of the earth–including love, then the whole painful process would be over and the Kingdom of Heaven would arrive. But a normal human being does not want the Kingdom of Heaven: he wants life on earth to continue. This is not solely because he is “weak”, “sinful” and anxious for a “good time”. Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise.

    Ultimately it is the Christian attitude which is self-interested and hedonistic, since the aim is always to get away from the painful struggle of earthly life and find eternal peace in some kind of Heaven or Nirvana. The humanist attitude is that the struggle must continue and that death is the price of life. “Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming hither: Ripeness is all”–which is an un-Christian sentiment.

    Often there is a seeming truce between the humanist and the religious believer, but in fact their attitudes cannot be reconciled: one must choose between this world and the next. And the enormous majority of human beings, if they understood the issue, would choose this world. They do make that choice when they continue working, breeding and dying instead of crippling their faculties in the hope of obtaining a new lease of existence elsewhere.”

    (end quote)

    from “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool” (1947) by George Orwell.

    Orwell’s point is that Shakespeare presents the humanist view of mankind, one which disturbs Tolstoy and is perhaps anathema to Christians and assorted fundamentalists of other stripes.

    It also disturbs those of a religious bent, though they rarely know why that is so.

    Orwell’s Essays are recommended reading, even for the Christians; who knows they might even learn something about mankind.

    The essay goes on, paraphrased :

    Some people are convinced that armies and police forces are evil, but they are nevertheless much more intolerant and inquisitorial in outlook than the more normal person who believes that it is necessary to use violence in certain circumstances. They will not say, “Do this, do that and the other or you will go to gaol”, but they will try to get inside another person’s brain and dictate his thoughts for him in the minutest particulars.

    “Creeds like pacifism and anarchism, which seem on the surface to imply a complete renunciation of power, rather encourage this habit of mind. For if you have embraced a creed which appears to be free from the ordinary dirtiness of politics–a creed from which you yourself cannot expect to draw any material advantage–surely that proves that you are in the right? And the more you are in the right, the more natural that everyone else should be bullied into thinking likewise.”

    Orwell, op cit.


    • Jennifer Wilson March 15, 2012 at 6:06 pm #

      When I think of the potential in human beings I see no need for a god or a devil. We contain every possibility, we are the “divine.” The “painful struggle of earthly life” is our purpose, how we meet that painful struggle, making a life in spite or because of it, the beauty in this painful struggle is breathtaking. Even if there was some form of life after death, it doesn’t matter, what matters is this earth and the life we live on it. This world takes my breath away, human beings take my breath away, for better and for worse. I often feel I know only a fraction of my potential, so much undiscovered, undeveloped, and I know others who feel the same.

      And someone just said to me on the phone “You can’t see yourself if you believe in something.” Ideologies, religions cripple and blind.

      As for being “right” that’s a trap any of us can fall into. It only matters that we don’t attempt to force others into the same trap, and Orwell would seem to suggest that is our natural bent, to make others agree with us. As Hudson suggested, and I think Stagger Lee also implied, cultivating the desire to move beyond the oppositional is what will break the tension, and how much courage one needs to venture into that uncertainty.


      • StaggerLee March 17, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

        Good afternoon all,
        The “desire” (to move beyond the oppositional) is certainly a major question. I not only imply that, I declare it. As it stands now however I see very little advance being made toward a conciliatory mode of debate. It appears from the language, tone and temper, the arguments and the rebuttals, that those people, if there are any, seeking a middle ground are swamped by the voices of the angry and the confused. This is clearly apparent in both camps.
        I’m am not certain, nor am I confident, that a positive path can be found through this incommensurability. Either there is no such path or that we are ill-equipped to read the map and compass. Or, the worst scenario of all, we have no “desire” to read maps or find paths.

        You mentioned in another post Jennifer, the name Barthes. If I can just push his central idea a little further to make my point. Not only do we need the reader to complete the text; there is no “text” without a reader, but that we are all “texts” to each other. By that I mean we seem unable to accept the full import of our protagonists arguments without completing those arguments ourselves! We abbreviate, exaggerate and exacerbate, we modify and qualify. We dodge the complex questions and return to our soapboxes – not wiser for the exchange but weighed further by the ballast of our own agenda’s or ideologies.
        This debate, whether it be about the issue at hand – Reist’s “agenda”, or about the defamation action against Wilson, seems to me to be defined in this way.
        I doubt very much that any new arguments can be brought to the fold that may change this state of affairs. In questions of this nature – profound, personal and passionate – we employ every defense mechanism in the arsenal of our ego.
        That has been my experience.

        Excuse these maudlin or melancholy thoughts.
        Let their temper be an indicator of their honesty.


        • Jennifer Wilson March 18, 2012 at 7:47 am #

          Barthes also claims that there’s no new texts – all texts are a tissue of previous texts, and how we read them is determined by how we have already been influenced. And Philip Roth agrees with your notion that we are “walking texts” in his “autobiographical” novel The Facts:
          “memories of the past…are not memories of facts but memories of your imagining of the facts…By now you are a walking text…”
          Not sure that is exactly in keeping with your post, Stagger Lee, but it came to me! It does suggest that to deny influences on opinions we hold is a rather reductionist approach to human complexity.

          Of course many misunderstood Barthe’s “Death of the Author”I wrote a chapter of my PhD thesis on this, maybe I’ll put it up one day!


          • StaggerLee March 18, 2012 at 11:14 am #

            It is indeed “in keeping with” my post. Thanks for the corollary Jennifer.

            I used it specifically to point to the innumerable readings that one can give, that one does give, to the “words” of others. Without trying to place a value judgement on the argument between yourself and Reist, I see these innumerable readings everywhere.
            Even here.
            I find the “denial of influence” you mention not only reductionist but also an impossibility. In this respect I side with Baudrillard who suggested we are “blank screens…..switching centres for all networks of influence”. This is not to deny an intrinsic system, it is simply to question the nature, origin and expression of one’s “influences”(agenda’s, bias, ideology).
            I feel that some in this debate, from both sides, fail to make this distinction (between a reductionism and an acknowledgement of influence).
            And the argument is the lesser for it.
            Which again, draws from me the elegiac assessment that we all have advanced very little from those initial arguments of 6-8 months ago.

            I would, of course, like to be drawn further on some of these issues. But shall refrain until, and if, a specific question is asked.

            Put up your Barthes chapter Jennifer. I’d certainly read it! 🙂


      • hudsongodfrey March 17, 2012 at 4:48 pm #

        Hello Jennifer and Doug,

        Great posts from everyone here.

        I have come to regard good and evil as concepts that exist relative to one another in the same way that mathematics is a concept that demonstrably exists. That some people want to struggle with theories of mind or propose inexorable metaphysical solutions seems to me to be reaching for certainty where there is none. If I am to be called a naive realist for recognising that their origins lie beyond the limits of my understanding simply because I can’t imagine how any of their theories could ever be falsifiable then so be it, but I really don’t think the burden of proof lies with me. Most importantly although their origins (should there be any) lie beyond my reckoning their workings are as clear to me as I think they can possibly be for anyone.

        That Jennifer says good and evil exist in people neatly captures the sense that people who refer to -isms and ideologies which are all apparently supposed to be antithetical to one another are missing out on seeing knowledge as a whole that is the sum of its parts. I’m wondering (not for the first time) whether there’s any similarity between the way a rational mind believes in discovered knowledge compared with the belief devout people profess in revealed truth when it also takes on the character of knowledge. Whether they exist on some kind of continuum where one has to displace the other whenever they overlap or not the effect seems rather to confuse the very realities we seek to clarify.

        I want to say how much I regard a wide range of ideas about emotional intelligence, neuroscience, psychology, philosophy and even certain kinds of spirituality are all fascinatingly useful and necessary to understanding the human condition. But I want even more to say how the kind of argument that defends particular ideological standpoints is so often delusional as to prove antipathetic to any possibility of examining our ideas much less testing the merits of one another’s arguments. Some people may be impressed by syllogisms or dialectical discourse just as others trust the emotional appeal of what they later rationalise. If however people start their sentences with “I think” when they mean “I feel” or “I believe” then their readers left as much in the dark about their motives as they probably are.

        Whatever the case their arguments are transparently discernible from attempts at genuine discourse in that they fail to risk declaring their hand openly in a spirit that might welcome someone else’s attempt to improve their understanding with a better argument or a fresh perspective. They tend to cry “ad hominem” or “straw-man” at will, but when questioned themselves will assiduously deny their challengers a quid pro quo. We know them all too well!

        A philosophy I declare has appeal to me is Sam Harris’ idea of a moral landscape with multiple peaks and valleys. He describes human well-being as served differently for different people depending on something analogous to the topology of their differing personal circumstances. I think It offers a useful foil to the ideal of homogeneity that the tribal urges in us seem to yearn for.

        At the end of the day if we want to change behaviour against implacable resistance of all the libertarians, realists, relativists, liberals and socialists, objectivists and capitalists, anarchists, theists, new-atheists, racists and xenophobes, creationists and zealots of all shapes and sizes then the task before us is to make them see how thoroughly dystopian any society that truly conformed to any set of homogeneous ideals would truly be. To bring it back to Orwell, through the prism if Nineteen Eighty-Four it doesn’t seem all that hard to see.

        I’ll leave you with an Orwell indulgence


        • doug quixote March 17, 2012 at 7:36 pm #

          The nature of good and evil is a vast subject and we can only hope to touch upon it. An interesting (and entertaining) study of it was Robert Louis Stevenson’s the Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde. Jekyll tried to eliminate evil from his persona, but succeeded only in creating the monster Mr Hyde,

          The lesson seems to be that we should accept that we are fallible beings, not amenable to perfection. Accept that we have faults; and whilst we strive to minimise them, be willing to tolerate the faults of others.

          It seems to me that there is no need for a god to be involved in these matters. But if some wish to retain belief in such a being, then those of us who have moved beyond that should attempt to tolerate their belief.

          The greatest risk to the world is fundamentalist belief, and there is no greater danger than the belief that “God is on my side”, for it will excuse any – any – excesses.

          If you believe – deeply, truly believe – that you hold the one, the only, true revelation then are you not at fault, deeply culpable indeed, if you do not attempt to have everyone else hold it as well?


          • Jennifer Wilson March 18, 2012 at 7:29 am #

            assumptions of omniscience, claims to know the “true’ reality – such things cause a kind of solipsistic madness of the kind found in fundamentalism


            • hudsongodfrey March 19, 2012 at 12:45 am #

              Doesn’t omniscience really just fail at the big rock paradox. You know the one that goes if God were omnipotent he could make a rock so big that even he could not lift it, but then being unable to lift the rock would be shown to lack omnipotence.

              Also there’s a funny thing about words. I’ve used solipsism to describe the same thing myself. It is I think quite apt. But I got the word from Christopher Hitchens, and always remember him in its use. Several other words recall for me the writer or speaker who introduced them into my vocabulary and I think it is a wonderfully evocative thing to be able to put a face to one of these little units of our language.


        • Jennifer Wilson March 18, 2012 at 7:33 am #

          “In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people — the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.” Orwell.

          Now that is one of the best opening sentences I’ve ever read.


          • doug quixote March 18, 2012 at 10:43 am #

            Yes, a great opening line, is it not?

            And how about :

            “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.”

            Orwell’s Essays are available online at


            Nearly every one of them repays the reader.


        • Jennifer Wilson March 18, 2012 at 7:54 am #

          And that is a mammoth task, Hudson. How does one “make” someone else see anything? Especially if they are dedicated to a religious/ideological faith. I sometimes like to think of it as an evolutionary process, that one can move beyond religion and ideology (I once was committed to feminist ideology, and before that as a youngster I was a Christian). I attribute my escape from these bonds to education, some self, some university, and to an intense curiosity I inherited from my grandfather that never seems to be satiated. If I were to wish any quality for children and grandchildren, it would be curiousity. This is the quality religion/ideology murders,in my opinion.


          • doug quixote March 18, 2012 at 10:36 am #

            It seems to me that no-one can ‘teach’ atheism; it is the opposite of indoctrination. Almost every atheist has come from some sort of religious background, and has come through it to the realisation that there is no god.

            One supposes that there are exceptions; if both parents were committed atheists it might just be possible that the child would be atheist as well, but if the child is amenable to religion, he or she would encounter it in the school, in the playground and in the wider community; and may then ‘defect’, so to speak.


          • hudsongodfrey March 18, 2012 at 11:57 am #

            I think the key may be in showing that values, while they infer ideals, aren’t quite the same thing. If we’re able to see that we hold similar values to one another and that these values may be contributed to in the multitude of slightly different ways that different people have to honour them, then that approaches a kind of ideal that doesn’t require absolutes and dogmas.

            Whenever I think something like that I’m reminded of Brian pleading with the assembled throng “you are all individuals”, from Monty Python’s life of Brian. When the crowd responds, “Yes, we are all individuals” one person (who isn’t a sheep) mumbles those magnificent words “I’m not!”

            The article is right people don’t “make” others see, but the right person in the right place at the right time can help them to realise what they probably always knew. As a “catholic child” my world was somewhat closed off from a wider reality. The real world that my parents thought was sinful. But eventually the real world crept in like letting go of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Lipstick Lesbians (quick chasing Amy reference for Kevin Smith fans). And the real world was enlightening. It came to me in the form of people. Mostly writers whose words and ideas I became enthralled by. People like Orwell and Wilde, later others would follow.

            In friends whose experience has been the opposite I see the desire to take refuge in faith from a world that has dealt them crushing blows they seek to be insulated from. They find comfort and succour in their religious faith in a way I never could because I’ve come to realise it is elsewhere and have faith in another truth, in a sense of the life well lived.

            Doug is right of course. Atheism is the default state, but insecurity is also the default state and where a sense of being secure in one’s knowledge of their place in the world is not cultivated in people then like the disgusting practice of mixing scotch with coca cola, people who don’t appreciate the alternative may fall into bad habits.


  7. Julia March 16, 2012 at 11:46 am #

    There is no Right or Wrong.
    There is only consequences.

    And the first person recorded as stating this was burnt at the stake by Calvin


  8. StaggerLee March 17, 2012 at 5:10 pm #

    And as it is, and as it has been, for perhaps a year now – I agree and disagree in equal measure. I shall not question those articles of disagreement however……..we have been down that tortured path before.
    I will just note that your post – and most especially your final paragraph – confirms my thoughts posted above.
    And that it comes as no surprise is the source of the melancholy.

    As a postscript Hudson, if you have a specific question to ask of me, just ask it.
    These side references are contrary to the spirit of your words.
    To say the least.


  9. gerard oosterman March 17, 2012 at 6:02 pm #

    I find a lot of the words and their order of them, so convolutedly complicated. Can you please consider the more simple-minded of us. I am also often a bit suspicious of double negatives and/or positives.
    I have left drastic changing rather late and have thrown in the towel, having to accept that my genes fight tooth and nail behavioural changes in my everyday habits. I have never even developed the habit of strict tooth brushing every night. Instead, depend very much how I feel when facing the toothpaste and the brush. Sometimes, having gone to bed without the teeth cleansing, I am riddled with angst and then get up and do my duty, but I don’t do that often either. It’s all so touch and go!
    I’ll be lucky to get out of it all alive.


    • Hypocritophobe March 17, 2012 at 6:38 pm #

      Your observation is not dissimilar to an earlier one,Gerard


    • doug quixote March 17, 2012 at 7:01 pm #

      I suspect none of us will get out of it alive.


      • gerard oosterman March 17, 2012 at 8:35 pm #

        Deeply worrying. doug quixote:
        Sometimes doing a wild tango helps a lot.


        • Hypocritophobe March 17, 2012 at 10:53 pm #

          Be careful Gerard.

          A tango stole my baby.


        • helvityni March 18, 2012 at 11:29 am #

          Forget about the wild Tango, do a Portuguese Fandango, two boys can do it…
          The word ‘fandango’ has a synonym ‘a quarrel’, and as there seem to be some quarrelling blokes here, pick up your your boy and fandango… 🙂


    • StaggerLee March 18, 2012 at 11:18 am #

      Hi Gerard, if you are talking to me, about me, please just ask a question. I’d be only too happy to elaborate a point. My aversion to misunderstandings grows daily!
      I like your toothpaste story very much……and after a re-read I doubt very much the substance of this debate escapes you 🙂

      Say hi to Helvi for me.


      • helvityni March 18, 2012 at 11:53 am #

        Hi Stagger, didn’t you see me, I have been here for a while 🙂


      • gerard oosterman March 18, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

        Hi StaggertLee:
        No, not about you or anyone in particular. Very often on a Saturday evening, a fatigues-ness settling in, some fogginess of mind, a dizziness of spirit and Shiraz. There seeps in and even overwhelms, at those times, the capacity to take it all in. I think during those Saturday evenings I should just listen to soothing music and remain away from the Internet. Perhaps Bachianas Brasilieras is the answer.
        My question that I pondered about is: Despite or because of our ‘free will’, the ability to change the way our genes dictate us seem neigh impossible. Is the free -will a trick, a kind of Tomfoolery, just a kind of deceit that pretends we can go here or there, while in fact, all we can do is to continue the narrow genetic predetermined way and just hope we will be nice to others without hurt or cause pain and brush our teeth..


  10. paul walter March 17, 2012 at 10:39 pm #

    Patting stomach whilst rubbing head the same time.


    • helvityni March 18, 2012 at 11:40 am #

      Multitasking women can do it easily, but it’s too hard for the boys who have not learnt how to put down a toilet seat…. 🙂


      • gerard oosterman March 18, 2012 at 12:57 pm #

        Well, if toilet seat down-putting is proof of a profound change possible, than I will swallow my words in denying change is (not) possible. I, without any fear or favour declare, I not only put the seat down but UP as well.
        In fact, with advancing years, the toilet seat arrangements gets pretty hectic during the nights.


  11. Julia March 18, 2012 at 1:45 am #

    There is change and there is change.
    Change within a structure is relatively easy…no! simple is the better word…& straightforward to effect.
    A person who believes in one all powerful all loving transcendental being will be easier to convince, find it easier to make the change from Methodist to Baptist, and once they have done so, will have even less difficulty changing across to Assembly of God. First they see for themselves Methodism isn’t the salve of comfort they are looking for; they want change; they will dither over the decision to change until they see a promising alternative; the perceived positives the Baptists & AoGs offer highlight the negatives of the Methodists & the tipping point is quickly reached. AoG is too radical but Baptist is more compatible with their comfort zone. And the change is effected, with regret yet impatiently.
    The next change is easier to effect. After all, they’ve done this before and God didn’t strike them down with a bolt of lightning. Baptists may do some things different but in many ways are too similar to Methodists…it’s not really what they wanted…whereas AoG offers more difference, is more compatible with their wants. The second change feels more natural, is rationalised & effected with less dithering, more quickly.
    But they are still worshipping the same One all powerful being. A different position witin the same structure.
    Change from one structure to another is much harder. Much more involved.
    Moving from Christianity across to Hinduism, from One supreme being to hundreds of them. Or to no god at all. It’s not just a matter of changing the expression of how they worship their God…they need to be convinced of the rightness of the completely new belief system, convinced the old structure is wrong, & need to be convinced the change is necessary, need to believe their wanting to change is right. Need to want the new, to throw the old away.

    Another angle:
    A junkie will never succeed giving up their drug of choice even when they are completely convinced they must, until they want to. They can decide a thousand times, go through rehab after rehab, but will always go back to the drug…or change to another drug that gives them the same comfort. Only once they decide they want to stop self-medicating, then, and only then, they will be open to changing the behaviour, working towards resolving the issues that caused the addiction, learning again how to live in the real world without the cushioning.

    Leadership is a funny thing. No matter how good the relationship, how loyal the sheep followers, the leader is still the “other”. The “authority” sitting on a pedestal and every one of those sheep (& the antagonistic goats) is hankering to knock you off. Conciously or sub-consciously…each is resentful that you and not they are up there. Everything is fine, the changes will continue to effect, as long as you are unassailable. But one mis-step, one chink in your armor and the sheep’s clothing with be thrust aside, slavering wolves go for the throat, the whole edifice comes crashing down. The sheep go back to milling around, until they find another leader, another tall poppy, to direct them back to change. It could be the drug counsellor, the religious preacher, or the leader of a political party.
    My experience is the most effective leader is one who can direct the sheep, get them to effect the change themselves, let them each think it is their own idea, while not seeming to be a leader at all. Seen as just another sheep within the flock. It’s a lot harder, takes a great deal of skill, but is more effective in the long run.


  12. gerard oosterman March 18, 2012 at 11:12 am #

    Behavioural change is so tricky that it resembles a conjurer’s job in almost 100% of cases where it is claimed to have happened.
    The previously mentioned addiction to substances is nothing more than a physical one. Brake the habit and chances are that it will stop. However, as all smokers know, prolonged substance use, results in prolonged and deeply entrenched addiction habits. Each time, the substance is used, the need for the ‘next time’ is established.
    For some odd reason, addiction to (hard) drugs is often sheeted home to some kind of dysfunction, either in upbringing, childhood experiences or other trauma. Yet, with smoking addiction, that sort of reasoning is hardly ever applied. With a kind nod of approval we offer the patches and a pat on the shoulder. Grandpa’s sweaty feet are never blamed for smoking addiction. Why not?
    I doubt that ex smokers have become any different in behaviour than the still happily smoking.

    Apropos to change: Does any of you think John Howard has changed, having become a font of tolerance and oozing with benevolence, having got insight in the AWB and children overboard scandals, and is now so full of repentance, he is a changed man?
    Life continues its tortuous path, doesn’t it?


    • hudsongodfrey March 18, 2012 at 12:19 pm #


      From what little I know or have read about drug addiction there are chemicals involved that somehow alter structures within the brain to produce physical dependence. The interesting thing about neurology is that it may be possible to show that habits to a lesser degree follow the same kind of pattern without the chemical interference. I gather that some researchers already feel that there’s good evidence for this kind of thing.

      Now I don’t know about you, you seem calmer perhaps wiser that I, but understanding in this way helps me feel like I can control my habits or perhaps even more willingly try to form good ones. Or at least as long as I don’t have to become a vegan or meditate on a mountaintop to prove a point I’m happier in my own skin knowing I’m taking charge of those things.

      Perhaps as regards change there’s always going to be that hypocritical tension between do what I do and, do what I say! But when it comes to leading by example, well I figure that after the age of 70 (still quite a way off for me), I might take up cigars, whisky and wild women, or at least I hope to be able to manage the first two!

      The Prime Ministership changed Howard. I thought for the worse. Fraser in particular became more beloved as an elder statesman. Perhaps that’s just commentary on the parlous state of our younger statesmen. But I doubt Howard will follow in the same vein. My suspicion is that even as we speak he’s rather a frustrated cricket commentator than a source of political wisdom.


      • Julia March 18, 2012 at 1:12 pm #

        As with many areas of human behaviour, with drug addiction/dependency there is a tendency to place the whole thing into a neat little box…a one size fits all approach all wrapped up with a pretty bow on top.
        There was a time I thought I knew almost everything about curing the illness.
        Then a met a young pregnant woman who didn’t do drugs, but was clearly physically addicted to television. Almost from the moment she became pregnant she began sitting on the bed in front of the telly and simply could not tear herself away. She stopped going out, the flat became putrid as merely taking the time to go to the kitchen to rinse out a cup and make a cuppa meant she’d miss a few precious moments of Days of Our Drearies. She let herself become dehydrated, malnourished, unwashed.
        We tried everything but nothing worked. Even forcing her away, literally dragging her downstairs to the cafe below, to eat a meal. The longer she was without the drug the worse the classic signs of withdrawal became…the shakes, the nervous tics, the stomach cramps, the looking for an escape route, the whole scenario. It was clearly a physical response which settled rapidly once she was back upstairs in front of the telly.
        Finally, the baby was born and, to our utmost surprise, a couple of months after the birth she turned the tv off and the addiction vanished. She returned to pre-pregnancy normality
        The only thing we could conclude is this phenomena had something to do with hormonal changes. But really, we never found an explanation.
        It did however, totally alter my view on the mechanics of drug addiction.
        And these days, I know…I don’t know much at all.


        • hudsongodfrey March 18, 2012 at 4:11 pm #

          Great point Julia,

          A few years ago before I’d read or heard a lot of what I know now I would have dismissed your story as a case of mistaken diagnosis or wishful thinking. It could easily argued that in the absence of empirical evidence for a neurological cause that similarly presenting symptoms alone aren’t sufficient to have us believe that there’s any real correlation between drug addiction and an isolated case of TV dependency during pregnancy. And that would still be a good argument, albeit one I’d now tend respond to quite differently. I now realise that what you’ve raised would provide extremely interesting material for scientific research that I’m afraid someone with my previous degree of scepticism might too flippantly have dismissed.

          I’ll throw in a link here to V.S. Ramachandran on TED:

          That was so that I could say that if MRI scans can compare activity in different kinds of addictive behaviour, and indeed investigate the effects of something like the God Helmet which produces religious delusions in test subjects, then it is interesting to think that the nature of belief itself may be able to be studied in the future.


          • doug quixote March 18, 2012 at 4:50 pm #

            It may be left field, but I’ve long thought that there is a large minority who have what can be called “an addictive personality”. The person who has it needs something to latch onto, whether it be a drug of choice, a religion, being a workaholic, a sport, an obsessive hobby – in fact almost anything will do, so long as it can be used to provide a ‘hit’ for the person in question.

            Most of us get pleasure from all sorts of different activities, but the addictive personality needs the specific hit from the chosen activity. If the chosen activity or substance is for some reason not available, the person will suffer withdrawal, until some other activity can replace it.

            This view may have some holes in it, and I welcome feedback!


            • hudsongodfrey March 18, 2012 at 9:31 pm #


              Generalisations about cause and effect in the absence any confirmed link make for interesting hypotheses, but put too much weight on them and you might just stray into dangerous territory. If you’re fond of syllogisms then a similar one might be.

              Kids are seeing more TV than ever.
              I think TV places a disproportionate emphasis on body image.
              I notice kids seem to be having more body image problems.
              Therefore I can blame the problems on the TV.
              Let’s censor everything to do with body image.

              Some of those things are half truths, but most of the criticisms of them involve factors that aren’t even considered in the syllogism. The question when viewed in the light of a wider range of more complex factors to do with media, peer groups, parenting and education may emerge differently. The link between TV and body image isn’t well enough established and may emerge to be a very minor concern compared with a lack of education and parenting. The number of kids affected may be smaller than first thought and certainly not large enough to justify extreme sanctions. And censorship may come at a high price and have little or no impact whatsoever. Lastly and most importantly the whole thing may have been an exercise in blame transference onto some external evil where there are factors beyond the control of worried parents.

              Re run the same syllogism with the emphasis on violence and we’d simply argue in most cases that suspension of disbelief operates to distinguish between fantasy and reality and dispense with these arguments momentarily.

              Rather than overplaying the addictive personality card where we’re liable to begin to over-diagnose something or anything as panacea to our concerns with other people’s behaviour. I think we’ve got to resist the quick fix. When Alain de Botton goes off wanting to create an atheist pseudo religion I’m extremely circumspect because part of the rejection of theism, for me at least, is also a rejection of flock mentality.


            • doug quixote March 18, 2012 at 10:26 pm #

              Thanks for the feedback. I’m not saying that we should ‘do’ something about it – merely noting that that is how people are.

              Once that is realised, we may be able to better understand, tolerate and accommodate our fellow human beings.


  13. doug quixote March 18, 2012 at 1:55 pm #

    A great series of posts, men and women of npfs.

    To HG : You said “Doug is right of course” and I’m very flattered, but I don’t think atheism is a default position.

    If there is such a thing as a default position, it would be what Dante described in The Inferno, as he consigned all the great. the noble, and the virtuous pagans to the upper reaches of Hell : if they lived before Christ they knew no better and deserved to be “warehoused” in Hell and only mildly punished! The unbaptised are all there too.

    Atheism is a conscious choice, a result, a conclusion to which people are driven; and many bishops of the Anglican Church and probably quite a few Roman Catholic bishops share the conclusion.

    To gerard : unless one has a “Road to Damascus” event, change is very slow. Fraser was always interested in conservation and was socially liberal whilst being dry in economical views. Ayn Rand had a lot to answer for there; if there is a Hell I hope she is toasting. 🙂

    As for Howard, he is physically of reasonable stature, at around 1.75m, but it is the size of his vision and outlook that caused him to be called “Little Johnny”. I doubt anyone called Mussolini “Little Benny” at 1.68m, or Hitler at 1.71m “Little Dolfy”. . . might have been better if they had . . .


    • hudsongodfrey March 18, 2012 at 3:34 pm #


      I assure you I was merely speaking to the view that perpetuating the idea of a god or god’s seems to me to require somebody to implant the religious meme (if you want to call it that) in each new generation.


      • doug quixote March 18, 2012 at 7:32 pm #

        Isn’t it a never-ending process?

        Even a cataclysmic event like World War II did not entirely separate the generations, though I suppose birth rates were down from 1940 to 1945, with so many men and quite a large number of women in uniform – including my own parents who met in 1944, thousands of miles from their respective homes.

        The journey can take some strange twists and turns. One of my great uncles was a protestant clergyman who migrated to Australia from Scotland in the early 1900s, and then took part in founding the Communist Party of Australia, whilst retaining his Christian beliefs – surely a strange combination!


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