Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Book Review: 'The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone's Mind' by Jonah Berger

No one is ever satisfied with others. Everyone wants others to change. It’s the way of the world, from social programs to closed-minded managers to sales reps to elections. Everyone wants everyone else to see it their way. Jonah Berger tries to bring successful change tactics to this conundrum in The Catalyst. I’m not sure he succeeds. He needs to apply them to me, I guess.

The book is a collection of tactics, assembled in anecdotes. People all over the world try new approaches to old problems, and sometimes they succeed. The change agents don’t have to be academics or professionals. They just have to think outside the box. Sometimes you can move mountains that way.

It starts off well, telling readers they might be asking the wrong questions. What they really should be asking is: “Why weren’t people doing this in the first place? What was stopping them?”  This puts any problem in a very different light, and can lead to innovative approaches. As opposed to telling them they’re just wrong and this other way is clearly and obviously better. Could be smoking or gay rights or politics; persistent badgering does not work.

My favorite example of breaking down a firm conviction comes from Thailand, where a local health initiative with essentially no money used children to ask for a light for their cigarette. Many of the smokers they approached refused and actually lectured the kids on the dangers of smoking. At which point the children handed them a small piece of paper, folded in four, which contained the contact information for the health center that wanted to help them quit. Apparently the phones lit up continuously all throughout the campaign and continued to long after. All the ads in the world couldn’t change their minds over decades, but a child pointing out their own hypocrisy did the trick.

The basic problem is that people don’t like to be told what to do; they like to think it’s their own decision. So hammering them doesn’t work and often simply reinforces their stand. Finding common ground and switching the scenario to the one at hand can succeed far more effectively. Berger has a small shopping list of tactics that have worked for someone, somewhere, at some point. But not always and not everywhere.

As in so many of these summary books, the author has stacked the anecdotes to make their points. Because hindsight is so keen. But you could just as easily use the same evidence to come to the opposite conclusion.

For example, in the Brexit referendum, you might think that leaving would be too much of a change, taking voters out of their zone of acceptance – the range of possibilities voters might find acceptable. Or you might find the slogan “Take Back Control” was so appealing, it overcame the lies put forward on the famous red campaign bus (It claimed Britain contributed more than twice as much to Europe as it actually did). Or you might say the lies fooled voters into thinking they were making a genuine decision on their own. On the other hand, confirmation bias would have had voters thinking why they should believe any of this at all. Consider the source – Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson…  And on still another hand, the force of inertia is dependable for rejection of radical change. No matter how bad things are, better the devil you know. Then, there’s reactance. Spouting all these supposed negative effects and figures would normally reinforce voters’ positions coming in, as Leave was the strange new concept after 50 years of European co-operation. And since polls showed all along that voters would choose Remain (by ever-narrowing margins, it is true), the bleatings of the Leave crowd should have just reinforced the will to Remain.

So all of these (italicized) factors that Berger employs to change minds come into play in Brexit. How to evaluate their effectiveness? Berger gives the impression it was the slogan Take Back Control that changed minds most. Leave won, of course, but only a quarter of eligible voters chose Leave, as two thirds weren’t even moved enough to vote. So it hardly caused a major shift in public opinion.

The point is, you can find a scenario that works and proves the method – after the fact.

The book includes the heartwarming stories of a rabbi and his wife who turned a Klansman threatening their lives, by offering him help, which apparently no one had ever done before. And a Florida canvasser who turned a macho South American from voting against transgender rights by revealing herself as gay, and empathizing with the discrimination the man was going through because his wife was disabled. So it definitely has its moments. They boil down to a common basis: To truly change something, you need to understand it.

The Catalyst is harmed by Berger’s longwinded setups that seem to say the reader knows nothing and everything must be spoonfed at length in the most basic terms. He makes it too easy to skip ahead. It also suffers from cutesy management speak. Rather than be straight with readers, Berger creates the totally forgettable acronym REDUCE to encompass reactance endowment distance uncertainty corroborating-evidence. Great for consultants, not so much for book buyers. It becomes yet worse when he writes cheesy things like if you’re stepping on the gas and making no forward movement, check the parking brake.

So The Catalyst is a mixed bag: an eyeroller as well as an inspiration.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. He is the author of The Straight Dope or What I learned from my first thousand nonfiction reviewsLike what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.