Motivating the imperfect, irrational human being

This image was obtained with some rights reserved from Flickr user NioxxeAt the Dietitians NZ Conference in Nelson this year I attended a memorable workshop by Melbourne-based Psycoholgist John Boyle, on making changes and breaking habits.

Lightbulbs went on in my head throughout the workshop, appropriately titled A conversation around compliance, motivation and the imperfect, irrational human being. Often health professionals wonder why people come to them for help, only to fail to follow the advice or treatment plan that’s provided.

This nonsensicality begins to make sense when  the complexity of our brain, emotions and thought-patterns are accessed (and when you bear in mind that to some extent, we are in fact all imperfect, irrational human beings).

As many of  us know breaking an old habit, is remarkably difficult. Of course there are cases where people have turned their lives around in an instant, but these are far outweighed by those of us who have tried every way to leave behind a habit, and still struggle to achieve lasting results. In fact often we can end up worse off than when we started.

But don’t despair – some helpful tips, gleaned from John’s workshop on this topic, included:

  • When encouraging change, we must first ensure that in doing so, we don’t increase resistance to change. If we are confronted, a natural instinct is to resist, demonstrate reluctance or react. Often, objective, logical evidence is dismissed and any attempt to use logic and scientific argument can have the opposite effect that’s intended.
  • We as humans are wired to loss aversion – meaning if you told me I need to give up chocolate biscuits, I may work to avoid this. Instead it is important to focus on what I would gain from giving up that box of chocolate biscuits each day.
  • We have a commitment to our beliefs which is often difficult to terminate, even when things aren’t working. Evidence in support of a belief (such as, “no I don’t believe I need to exercise in order to lose weight”) may be lacking, but this belief has the power to create an immoveable force, leading us back to our old habits.
  • Motivational interviewing is a common and effective technique used in all forms of counselling, including dietary counseling. Instead of confronting or persuading someone to change, this technique focuses on helping a person to mobilise their values and goals so that change becomes the bi-product of this. This is done using tactics such as practicing reflective listening, open-ended questioning, and summarising – then being able to identify and act on ‘change statements’ – i.e. acting when a person is actually ready to change. Changes statements include those which; recognise a problem, show concern, show an intent to change, or show optimism about changing.

While motivational interviewing is widely used by health professionals, I believe it can be applied to many areas of our day to day lives, and the way we communicate with each other. Without knowing it, I was constantly using this technique quite successfully when employed as a nanny. When the children resisted eating their vegetables, I would focus on what they’d immediately gain from eating them – which was having the freedom to leave the table and go and play on the trampoline again. And to a 12 year old this prospect was irresistible.

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on where you think this could be applied, whether it be with your children or partner, or even with colleagues or business associates.


Categories: Health Promotion, Nutrition and Health

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1 reply »

  1. I think the most interesting application of this sort of thinking is actually to YOURSELF!

    It’s only possible to influence others towards positive actions in their lives AFTER you’ve gained awareness and control of your own life and your own closely-held paradigms. Once you’ve done that, it’s much easier to lead and inspire by example than it is to use any sort of external persuasion (even logic!) to try and help others change.

    It’s as Ghandi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”