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Why change is hard

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Human behaviour is notoriously difficult to change. Once we have settled on a way of doing things, we stick to it doggedly, even in the face of doom. At the same time, the opposite is true. We race ahead happily on the coat tails of our rapidly developing technologies, embracing innovation at every turn and constantly aching for the next version, the latest update, the new release that will change our lives (or the newest spray that will remove our stains / un-wrinkle our skin, in an instant.)

There is a difference though, I think. Exploring, trying out and discovering something new, especially if it will deliver some immediate gratification, is very different to the kind of change we struggle to make. It’s the difference between ripping open the wrapping paper on a present and giving up smoking.

It’s the difficult kind of change I’m thinking about: the kind of change that will allow us to walk away from destructive behaviours. Deliberate, positive change. The kind of change we need to make to embrace spotless. To throw out our chemical magic potions and get back to nature’s box of tools. Why is this so difficult to do?

I’m sure there are many, many reasons. I’ve considered several and I’m sure there are lots I’ve not thought of. But one in particular I’ve been thinking about lately, so I thought I’d write a bit about it here. Perhaps it’ll help you make the change, or stick to it. Recognizing obstacles does make it easier to avoid them.

So, here it is: Humans have evolved to be resistant to change. It is part of who we are. Again, I don’t mean that we are resistant to discovering and learning new things – that’s something that surely defines us. But we have evolved precisely to be resistant to giving up on habits that have been accepted by our group (our culture, our society), as being “the way it is done”.

It’s been hugely important to getting us to where we are. Humans rely heavily on learned behaviour, as opposed to behaviour that is innate. Innate behaviour is known at birth. But behaviour that is learned must be gained laboriously by each generation and cannot be lightly tossed aside. It relies on knowledge gained painstakingly over generations, and passed on carefully down the ages. This knowledge is extremely valuable and has been vital to human survival over all of evolutionary time. What plants to eat, how to prepare them to render them edible, how to make and control fire, create and use tools, fashion clothes and shelter, communicate through language – the knowledge, essentially, of how to survive and thrive in a wide range of environments as a human animal. If humans disdained the customs of their culture and couldn’t form strong habits and stick to them, we would surely not be human at all.

Of course, in recent history, much of this wealth of knowledge has been stored away in books and machines, divided up among specialists, and largely forgotten by most individuals. We rely on the assumption that experts in each field have the knowledge they need to provide these things for us, and fill our own minds with topics of our choice. I would say this has been both a useful and a perilous path, but that is another whole story.

The point, though, is that we are wired to learn from how we see things being done around us, especially by those we respect and aspire to being like. So, bombarded with impressive advertising campaigns and endorsements from the heroes of our times, it is no surprise that we follow suit obediently. We buy the products we see on our supermarket shelves, the ones we’ve seen demonstrated, and the ones others are using. It is also no surprise that we don’t wish to stop using them. We’ve become attached to them; we are familiar with how they work, with how they look and smell, with how and when to use them. This is all part of our accepted cultural knowledge, and we have evolved to guard it jealously.

We can think, however. It’s another of our evolutionary gifts. And though we are resistant to change, that does not mean that it’s impossible – just hard. Once the spell of culture is broken, change gets easier and easier. Here’s what I mean: we trust in our culture to help us survive and thrive, to make our lives better and easier. But once we recognize that it is not fulfilling these functions (e.g. our cleaning products are poisoning our world), we can more easily turn away from it. There is other knowledge out there, if we only look. Culture is not static, after all, and we create it as surely as it shapes us.

Before you know it, change ceases to feel like the effort of giving up the habits of a lifetime. Instead, you’re ripping open presents all over the place, and discovering the abundance of gifts that lie all around us, in nature and in the knowledge of others. A new culture is being formed. I’m so happy that spotless is part of it.

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