Why People Resist Change


“In times of rapid change, experience could be your worst enemy.” — J. Paul Getty

Why do people resist change, even when it’s for their own good?

Well, believe it or not, your own body can actually work against you.

The good news is, if you know how your body works, you can make changes easier, or at least know what to expect.

In the article, “The Neuroscience of Leadership”, in strategy+business magazine, David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz write about two reasons why people resist change.

Two Reasons Why People Resist Change

Rock and Schwartz identify 2 reasons why people resist change:

  • Attention effort
  • Errors between expectation and actuality

Attention Effort

According to Rock and Schwartz, trying to change a hard-wired habit requires a lot of effort, in the form of attention.

Your routine activities and tasks are handled by your basal ganglia which don’t require conscious thought.

When try to switch from a routine activity or task to new approach, it requires your prefrontal cortex.

The prefrontal cortex supports higher-level processing. It’s your working memory. The problem is, your prefrontal cortex fatigues easily and can only hold a limited set of information “online” at a time.

Habits like how you sell ideas, run a meeting, manage others and communicate are comfortable routines. You could do them blindfolded.  Theses routines are handled by your basal ganglia. It requires a lot of effort in terms of attention to change them.

Many people find this feeling uncomfortable.   (See Avoid Mental Burnout.)

Errors Between Expectation and Actuality

According to Rock and Schwartz , change triggers “error” responses.

An error response is when you perceive a difference between expectation and actuality. Your error responses are generated by your orbital frontal cortex.

Your orbital frontal cortex responds to errors in expectations (e.g. you expect something to be sweet, but it tastes salty). It is closely connected to your amygdala.

Your amygdala is your fear circuitry. It’s where the amygdala hijack happens. The amygdala hijack is the sudden and overwhelming fear or anger response.

The amygdala and the orbital frontal cortex are among the oldest parts of the mammal brain. When they are activated, they draw metabolic energy away from the prefrontal region, which supports higher intellectual functions.

You’re in fight-or-flight mode.

What this means is that while you’re trying to make a change, and you need your higher-level processing (prefrontal region) to make that change, you’re busy reacting in your orbital frontal cortex and amygdala, while they are starving your prefrontal region.

Key Take Aways

Here are my key take aways:

  • Limit the amount of attention you need to make a change. This could include preparing ahead of time, using checklists, chunking up the learning, … etc.  See How To Avoid Task Saturation.
  • Find ways to switch from fight-or-flight to thoughtful learning. Controlling your “animal instinct” is an important skill. One way to develop this is a technique from Crucial Conversations called Master My Stories.

A simple way to think about it is reduce friction and help create a glide-path for people to adopt new routines, including yourself.

You Might Also Like

Avoid Mental Burnout

Expectation Shapes Reality

Leading and Influencing Mindful Change

Photo by The Wu’s Photo Land


  1. Controlling your “animal instinct” is my favorite here.
    EQ (Emotional intelligence) is the most important skill for me. I screwed things and got screwed so many times until started to practice seriously EQ, i started to practice emotional intelligence.
    The result? I become a better influencer w/o authority, but most important I become more easier to change myself and that is a big change!

  2. This is very true. And sometimes change is not enough, you have to hang onto it for a couple for a couple of weeks before it settles in as new routine.

  3. I enjoy reading about how our brains work. I think that its a good subject for smart people to study in order to learn how to “trick” ourselves into achieving what we want.

  4. The brain amazes me more and more. I’m not sure we’ll every completely understand it.

    Nice Article.


  5. I think most people are afraid of the unknown, change bring people out of there comfort zone. For those who are open minded enough to welcome the change, they then have to stay commited to the change and let it become a habit.

    Great post thank you,
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action

  6. On change on a related note..
    Being able to tell the difference between when you are actually being threatened and when there is a perceived threat can also help a great deal. That can provide the power to override your amygdala.

    For example
    Covey talks about the difference between stimulus and reponse in the 7 habits of highly effective people. He says you have choice between the two and you can decide how to react to a given stimulus. Sometimes this stimulus can be an emotion or reaction you’ve already had.
    In other words, something happens, it trigger and automatic response. Then you are left with the emotion that is the result of that. This becomes the new stimulus. Now what do you do with that?

    Stimulus 1 –> Choice point1 -> Reponse1 (feeling)
    Response 1 becomes Stimulus 2 (feeling) – Choice point2 -> Response2 (new thought or action)

    I’ve run into situations (recently for example) where I’m not aware of the choice point1 in the first stimulus. I should be, but I’m not. So I sail right past and go directly from stimulus to response. Then I’m left having to deal with it at choice point2.

    This is relevant to this post in that if you can control your actions and issues downstream, you can negate some of the effects of the lack of a choice point1. You don’t have the same cycle all the way through. You can counteract your amygdala response using force of will.

    Of course, this takes energy, but the point is that you are now looking at the feeling you have as generated by something upstream, instead of being “real” an unchangable. You then keep looking upstream for choice point 1 until you find it. Now you know what to change.

    I went through a period of anxiety attacks in college and this taught me the importance of knowing this. With a hugely stong amygdala response, the only way to get control is to know when you are actually being attacked vs think you are. Otherwise you are running around trying to change all sorts of stuff, but you don’t have the peace and insight to know what the right change to make is.

    Opposing viewpoints welcome. 🙂


  7. Hi JD

    Very interesting facts

    I think we also need a big sense of desire to change the habit. If the status quo is not uncomfortable enough or the alternative is not attractive enough, it’s probably not going to work.


  8. @ Alik
    I’ve noticed the change in you and I think it makes a big difference. I think you’ve also done some great posts on emotional intelligence and I like how you’ve shared what you’ve learned.

    @ Louisa
    Great point. It’s so easy to fall back into old habits and routines. Some are really ingrained. I amaze myself sometimes how I’ll think I have a new habit nailed, then time goes by and one day I wake up and realize I’ve completely dropped it off the radar. I use checklists to remind myself of key things.

    @ Trey
    Outsmarting ourselves is the way to go. The key thing that works for me is finding a way to enjoy the change. It’s a little more work up front, but it helps in the long run.

    @ Melissa
    So true. Every change event is a chance to improve things, if you can find a way to make the most of it. It’s also a reminder that it’s not what happens to us, but how we respond.

    @ Nate
    Thank you. Surprisingly, some of the best information on how our minds work is by Edward de Bono. He frequently refers to his one book, The Mechanism of Mind. I haven’t checked it out yet, but it’s on my list. NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) is also a great way to get results.

    @ Tom
    So true. Rejection is definitely a common and powerful fear. The most powerful antidote I know is living inside out and living your values. There’s something strong about authenticity and integrity.

    @ Giovanna
    Change can definitely feel uncomfortable. I think it’s a combination of motivation and capability and knowing what to expect. If you don’t believe the benefits, the change won’t stick. If you don’t have the right technique, the change might not be successful. If you don’t know what to expect in terms of going from uncomfortable to habit, you might not stick with it.

    @ Rob
    Really good point on choice points and I like your personal reflection.I also like how you illustrated with perceived threat vs. an actual threat. It’s like playing the scene in slow motion and rewriting a new script that makes sense based on what you want to accomplish. It’s another reminder that you’re the director of your life.

    You reminded me of the difference between being in the moment and choosing your next best actions versus responding to automatic thoughts either from the past or perceived threats in the future.

    @ Juliet
    I agree. Motivation is a huge factor. Not everybody is running around looking to change. The saying, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it rings true. People definitely do more to avoid pain. I think it’s important to know both the benefits of doing something and the pain of not doing it.

    There’s two related challenges: 1) we don’t always know the real pain or benefit 2) we aren’t good at mental simulation. Because habits are reenforces intellectually, emotionally, and physically, it’s super tough to talk yourself through changes, unless you fully engage your mind, body, and emotions along the way. The more I use all of me, the more leverage I get.

  9. Change is a phenomena that is very pervasive.every goes through change but is sometimes very difficult to adjust and adapt to change.Even though change is the alteration of the status quo we still go back to what already existed.If we do adhere to change well we will develop as a people, nation,knowing the need for us to change.

  10. @ Emily

    I agree – change is definitely a path, not a destination. You would think that with all the change we get exposed to, we’d all be masters of change.

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