Why Trying to “Get” People to Change Doesn’t Work

How many people do you know who love to be told what to do? My guess is not many. Yet why do we continue to treat people as if they are replicable and predictable robots that we can manipulate and control to do what we want? The only thing predictable about human beings is that we are predictably irrational.

  • We regularly do things we know aren’t good for us, and
  • We often don’t do things we know we should.

Why is this? Simplifying the complexities of neuroscience research can help bring greater understanding.

Lessons on Change from Neuroscience:

Perhaps this brief overview can help increase our understanding of human motivation for behavior change.


  • The prefrontal cortex of the brain is a “holding area” where our working memory is stored. This is where we first compare ideas and perceptions to other information. It is a highly energetic part of the brain that supports higher intellectual functions (creativity, innovation, and decision making) and is frequently engaged when we encounter something new; however, it can only store a small amount of information at any one time and fatigues easily.
  • The basal ganglia are deeper in the core of the brain. They are stimulated by routine, familiar activities, forming and storing long-standing habits. The typical way people behave is rooted in the basal ganglia. In routine activity, the basal ganglia can function extremely well without conscious thought (e.g., riding a bike).1
  • The limbic system is traditionally thought of as the “seat of emotions.” It is loaded with cells that are responsible for our feelings and emotions, as well as the “flight or fight” response to stressful situations.
  • The nucleus accumbens is sometimes referred to as the pleasure center of the brain. It is involved in the release of dopamine in response to a wide range of pleasurable experiences, including sex, love, food, music, and many different types of drugs.

Let’s look at how the brain responds to extrinsic motivation. When we are told what to do (“do this or you’ll get that”), the prefrontal cortex immediately sends a message to the basal ganglia saying in essence “Hey, this request (or demand) is unfamiliar.” The basal ganglia respond with “No way, that is not how we do things around here. Danger!” The limbic system is then stimulated and the fight-or-flight response ensues. At the same time, the information flow to the prefrontal cortex is minimized; this is no time for thinking and creativity – it is time to run or fight!

Now let’s see what the brain’s response is to intrinsic motivation. When we are doing something because we want to, because the act of doing it brings its own reward, a special group of cells called mirror neurons are activated. These mirror neurons send a calming signal to the basal ganglia and the limbic system as if to say, “Everything is fine; nothing to concern yourself with here.” At the same time, the prefrontal cortex is stimulated so critical thinking and creativity are enhanced. As an additional bonus, the nucleus accumbens is stimulated, leading to a generalized feeling: “All is well.”

The more we try to get individuals to change or try to “fix” them, the more the brain sends out powerful signals that something is wrong; these signals stimulate our fear and anger responses, and draw energy from the prefrontal region. The result is having animal instincts take over that readily overpower any rational thought. In addition, the brain has a keen ability to detect the difference between authentic inquiry (i.e., I’m asking you a question for no other reason than I’m genuinely curious about you and interested in you) and persuasion (i.e., I’m asking you a question to try to “get” you to somewhere I think you should be — or I’m incenting you to do something I think you should do).2 So acting via Motivation 3.0 (i.e., trying to “get” someone to be intrinsically motivated) will usually backfire because the brain can detect the ulterior motive.

The brain has an innate desire to solve its own problems and create novel connections. When people work out their own solutions, the brain rewards us with pleasure.3 Therefore, the change process works better by asking questions (as opposed to telling people what to do) that allow people to initiate their own thoughts. This is a critical component to autonomy, engagement, and lasting change.

If we want to have change in organizations, in health status, and in people’s lives, we need to stop doing what we’ve always done. Enough with the carrots and sticks to manipulate other people’s behaviors to what we think they should be! None of us like to be told what to do, so what makes us think we can tell others what to do and not have it backfire?

We need to stop focusing downstream on behaviors (which are merely the outwardly observable acts of how we think), and move upstream to improve THINKING skills and shift to a pattern where intrinsic thinking and intrinsic motivation can flourish. We need to shift our own thinking but also create opportunities for other people to find new thinking for themselves.

Dr. David R. Buchanan sums up the pressing need for this shift in his groundbreaking work, “A New Ethic for Health Promotion: Reflections on a Philosophy of Health Education for the 21st Century”:

“[I]nstead of devoting all of our time and energy to creating the technologies of behavior control, I think that we should be moving in precisely the opposite direction: We should be doing everything in our power to increase human autonomy. Instead of seeking to develop programs that are more effective in altering people’s behavior, we should focus on aiding people to make their own choices about how they want to live in light of their best understanding of the good life for themselves.” (p. 302)

  1. Charles Duhigg (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House.
  2. Rock D. & Schwartz, J. (2006, Summer). The neuroscience of leadership. Strategy+Business, 43, 1-10.
  3. Charles S. Jacobs (2009). Management Rewired. New York: Penguin Group.

Rosie Ward, PhD, MPH, MCHES, BCC, CIC®, CVS-FR Rosie is an accomplished speaker, writer and consultant. She has spent more than 20 years in worksite health promotion and organizational development. In addition to her bachelor’s degrees in Kinesiology and Public Health, and a doctorate in Organization and Management, Rosie is also a Certified Intrinsic Coach® Mentor, Certified Judgment Index Consultant, a Certified Valuations Specialist, and a Board Certified Coach. Rosie uses this unique combination to work with executive and leadership teams to create comprehensive development strategies centered on shifting thinking patterns. She is a contributing author to the book, “Organization Development in Healthcare — High Impact Practices for a Complex and Changing Environment.” She leverages these principles to help organizations develop and implement strategies to create a thriving workplace culture that values and supports wellbeing and the unique, intrinsic needs of employees. Contact Rosie at rosie@salveopartners.com or drrosieward.com.

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