Persuading people to change

If your research reveals a better way of thinking about the world, or doing or arranging things, then you want the world to take notice. You probably also want us all to start thinking about or doing things in this new, better way. But we humans are very resistant to change. Even those of us who are ready for hard work, still find change difficult.

So what is the best way to persuade people to try something new?

Shreya Zaveri, a Wharton Business School research scholar, supervised by Samir Nurmohamed, thought that a personality trait described as ‘Openness to Experience’ might predict an individual’s interest in a radically novel product. ‘Openness’ is one of five often used measures of personality. Zaveri clearly has a good eye for extremes and chose ‘edible insects for human consumption’ as the new product to test the theory.

Zaveri found that ‘Openness’ does not play a large part in predicting an individual’s interest in new products: familiarity is a stronger predictor. However, openness does have an influence, and ‘priming’ or familiarising a more open audience to a new product or idea will have more impact than proposing an entirely novel product or idea to a general audience.

We know that marketers for novel products seek routes to the individuals who they believe could be early adopters in their field. For academic researchers those supporters and ‘early adopters’ are often part of an existing close-knit audience of experts. These experts may be able to help your new idea or approach reach a wider population, particularly if their expertise is recognised in larger non-expert circles. This is how international travellers introduced sushi to a wider western audience who previously shuddered at the thought of raw fish, and also why pharmaceutical marketers look for doctors to promote their products.

If ‘impact’ is an important part of your research, you may already have co-created some of your work with a group of research beneficiaries. These beneficiaries also have potential to act as primed ambassadors, familiar with your work, who can help to promote your research results in the wider world.

This approach is probably essential for cross-disciplinary research, and teams wanting to influence attitudes and ideas. Changing attitudes or ideas is even harder than persuading people to try edible insects. However, we are now living in an era of unbelievably rapid change where whole populations are changing political allegiances and daily habits at an amazing, often uncomfortable, speed.

So don’t give up. Zaveri’s research tells us that familiarity is a stronger vehicle for change, so link your new ‘thing’ to familiar ideas or systems, and where possible build your future ambassadors into your research project from the start.

And then be very glad that your research has revealed something new that is easier to digest than edible insects!

Our friends at the Oxford Review helped us to find this research through one of their research briefs: Eating a beetle – How to get your radical ideas accepted

Shreya Zaveri’s original paper, cited in the brief, is available here

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