We hosted Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton School and an international best-selling author. He has published over 50 articles in top-tier academic journals. He teaches Wharton’s highest-rated online course, and over a million copies of his books are in print in over 35 countries around the world.
I’m going to start with your newest book Catalyst, which is focused on change, changing minds, changing opinions, changing behaviors. Let’s start here. Why is change just so difficult?
That was the question I wrestled with my myself for a long time. We all have something that we want to change. The marketers, the salespeople listening may say, “I want to change a client or a customer’s minds.” Employees want to change their bosses’ minds. Leaders want to transform organizations. I can’t tell you how many events I go to where a CEO or someone else speaking before me says, “We need to take more risks. We need to be more ambitious. We need to think differently. We need to go beyond,” and everyone goes, “Yes, yes.” Everyone basically goes back to what they were doing before, because everyone wants change. It’s clear we want to achieve change, but it’s often really challenging to get there.
There are a number of reasons why. Part of it is what’s called the status quo bias. We tend to be attached to things that we’re doing already. Things that we’re doing are familiar, new things are unfamiliar. Old things seem safe, new things seem risky. It’s also part of the way we try to create change and the way we enact change. I lead a lot of executive education programs at Wharton. When I talk about this stuff, I often ask the audience, I say, “Write down something that you want to change. It can be whatever you want, and then write down one thing you do or have done to try to change that thing.” People think about it. They write down various things they might want to change.
What we find is over 98% of the time, people list some version of what I’ll describe as pushing. They say, “Look, I’ll provide more information. I want to change a client’s mind, I’ll make another presentation. I want to change a boss’s mind, I’ll send over one more PowerPoint deck. I’ll have one more phone call, one more pitch meeting. If I just explained to the person why they should come around, they’ll do it. Some people talk about information. Some people talk about emotion, but in all cases, it’s some version of pushing.” That’s still why we think pushing is good? If there’s a chair in the middle of a room and we want to move that chair, pushing it is a great way to get it to go the direction we want it to go.
There’s one problem, which is that people are not chairs. When we push chairs, they go, when we push people, they often push back. They’re often digging their heels. They often don’t move or even they do the exact opposite of what we want. What I started to wonder is could there be a better way to change? Could there be a better way to change people’s minds, to drive action, to change behavior, whether within organizations or outside it, by understanding why people don’t change, why change is so hard and why they do change and how we can take advantage of that?
The book really focuses on that concept of rather than pushing harder or exerting more energy, it’s actually about removing barriers. Can we dive in a little bit more on those barriers to change?
I think a good analogy is to think about a car. Imagine you’re getting in your car and let’s say, it’s parked on a hill, for example. You’re getting in your car and you want your car to go, you buckle your safety belt, you stick your key in the ignition, you turn the key, you put your foot on the gas. If the car doesn’t go, often we think we need more gas. If we just push, push, push the car will go. Rarely though do we look to our side and go, “Wait, the parking brake is up.” If the parking brake is up, it doesn’t matter how much we step on the gas, change isn’t going to happen. The same thing is often true. Whether it comes to changing people or organizations.
We can push all we want but all that people are going to do is going to come up with more resistance or as I talk about it in the book, more reactance to our methods. What great change agents do, what great catalysts do is they don’t push harder. They don’t sit there and they don’t think about, “What could I do to get someone to change?” Instead they take a subtly, but importantly, different approach. They say, “Why hasn’t that person changed already? What’s stopping them. What’s preventing them?” They identify the obstacles to change and they mitigate them.
That’s exactly where the word catalyst comes from, actually. Many of us know catalyst is just change agents. We think about catalysts create change, but catalysts actually have a very specific meaning in chemistry. In chemistry, catalysts are something that make chemical reactions happen faster and easier, but they don’t just do it faster and easier, they do it in a very interesting way. They do it without requiring more energy. They do it by requiring less energy.
What catalysts in chemistry do is they figure out an alternate way to help the same reaction happen with less work, not more. That’s what the book is really all about. When you go to a doctor’s office, the doctor doesn’t say, “Let me put a cast on your leg.” They say, “Well, hold on. Let me start by identifying the problem.” The same thing is true here. We need to start by figuring out what the problem is, what that barrier is or are that are preventing change, and only then can we really figure out how to remove them.
You talked and you hit briefly on some of the people and organizations that you talked to or studied for this book. Do you have one story that sticks out as maybe a surprising individual or group or a lesson that you maybe didn’t expect from one of the people or organizations that you worked with that drove some of this book?
Yes. Actually, I’ll tell the story of where I started because I think this has been an interesting journey for me. As you mentioned, I’m a professor at the Wharton School. I’ve been there now for 15 years. Originally in my first six or seven years there, I spent most of my time doing teaching and research, 90%, 95% of my time was in those two buckets, did a little bit of consulting, a little bit of speaking here and there.
Then a few years ago, I released a book called Contagious, which was all about word of mouth, why people talk, why they share, how to get products, services and ideas to catch on by understanding the science of word of mouth based on some research that I and others had done in the space. That book really changed my life. I had expected or hoped that some people would find the book interesting, but I had never realized that people would start to call me and ask me to apply the ideas from the book.
I started getting calls from everybody from the Googles and the Apples and the Nikes of the world to GE and small startups and everything in between and whether it was go-to-market strategy, generating word of mouth, getting things to catch on, changing organizational culture. I really got to learn a lot about how modern organizations do business and some of the challenges that they’re wrestling with.
Slowly, I started to realize that all of them in some sense had a common core issue, which is they all had something that they wanted to change. If it was a new product, it was changing the client or customer’s mind. If it was organizational culture, it was getting new initiatives or new ways of doing things to catch on internally. What they were doing and these strategies of pushing just weren’t working right. I applied some ideas that I was familiar with and others had used before, and we’d often get some traction, but they wouldn’t completely work, and so I started looking around for well, could there be a better or a different way and started trying some strategies that I had read about or learned about it some research to generate some new strategies and slowly but surely, I realized some of these things fit together in an interesting way. I talked a lot with clients about reducing uncertainty and I realized, “Well wait, there’s some broader principles underneath that.” I talked about the idea of reactance and realized, “Wait, what parenting experts are doing is actually very similar to what great consultants do, but they call it different things.”
I started to play with these ideas and figure out a playbook for them and that’s really how this book came about, it was very ground up and it’s been neat to see these principles at work in many different places, and learn how we can apply them in new organizations as well.
I’d love to talk a little bit more about you personally, can you talk about your process of writing a book? What does a normal day look like for you or how does the journey happen from kernel of an idea to final book published?
What I will say is, it’s never a straight line, that I think is the one thing I can say. At any given day, I’m working on a number of research projects, we’re doing a lot of work at the moment related to natural language processing, automated textual analysis, extracting behavioral insight from textual data. Doing a lot of research on those topics, mixed in with some speaking and some teaching, and some consulting along the way but every book is different.
I think my first two books really came out of research that I and others had done, teaching that research in, whether it was to MBAs or undergrads or executives, realizing there wasn’t something out there that I could share with them beyond the 90-minute class and putting them together in a book. The Catalyst, the most recent book, came more out of a hole, there was a problem, there was a missing gap that I was trying to fill with some of my clients and I started to put something together to help address that. It eventually became a book. I never know when they will start or how they’ll progress but it’s always interesting to try to bring new ideas together in a way that a broad set of folks can understand and use.
You received a PhD from Stanford back in 2007. Where did you want your career to go at that point and if you were giving a talk to university students, or graduate students today, what advice would you give them?
I would even take a one step back. Once I had that PhD in marketing, I knew that I was going to be a teacher, professor. I knew that I loved research, I knew that I liked this stuff but there was a time before then where, I thought about getting an MBA and working for a company and ended up getting involved in research and liking it a lot. I was just recently talking to one of my research assistants who’s trying to figure out what to do after undergrad.
I think the key thing is just to try some things. It’s really hard to know exactly what one career is like, one company is like, there’s much variation. I teach core marketing at Wharton and people come in with these stereotypes of what marketing is based on whatever organization they happen to be at but marketing varies a lot across organizations and across the world. Same with any role, even the same job title at different organizations can mean very different things.
I think it’s really important to get that hands-on experience whether through internships or trying different things or talking to people that have actually had those roles.
It’s very hard to guess what something will be like without sitting in that chair or talking to someone that sat in that chair. One great piece of advice I received is, figure out someone who’s doing the type of thing you want to do and figure out how they got there because in general, certain degrees or certain things may or may not be useful, but you find someone that’s had a got to where you want to be figuring out the steps they took to get there will help increase the chance that you can get there as well.
I want to talk about one of your other books just really quickly, which was Invisible Influence and there was a note associated with it that said, 99% of all decisions are shaped by others yet we’re often woefully unaware of when influence happens and how it works. As a leader, can you talk about why sometimes other people are motivating and why sometimes what we do or what others do is actually demotivating?
Sure, yes. We did a study a couple of years ago, that addresses this starts in a very different domain, but addresses this. We were interested in basketball and how the score at halftime might relate to the score at the end of the game. Imagine watching NCAA or NBA, your team is up by five points, down by five points, whatever it might be at halftime. How does the score at halftime relate to the score at the end of the game. Not surprisingly, the more points the team is ahead at halftime the more likely they’re to win. Every two points, you’re ahead or two points more you’re ahead, you’re 6% to 8% more likely to win the game, one because you’re ahead and two, because you just tend to be a better team.
The further you are behind, the more likely you are to tend to lose. There’s one place that actually losing is better than winning and that is being just a point behind. Teams that are a point behind at halftime actually do better than teams that are point ahead at halftime. Even though they’re worse teams, even though they have to score more points to win, teams that are losing by just a little are more likely to win.
We thought about it and tried to figure out the reason why. It turns out that being a little bit behind is very motivating. You go and come out of the locker room, you’re fired up, you’re so close you can almost taste it, you work harder and you end up performing better. We thought that was quite neat, we published a paper. Someone else though published a very similar paper a few years later and found something different. They looked at tennis and they said, “Okay, imagine it was a tiebreaker in tennis. There’s a first set, you guys are very close or there’s some tiebreaker. You barely lose the tiebreaker. Are you more or less likely to win the next set?” What they found is that in tennis actually, losing a tiebreaker makes you more likely to lose the next set rather than win.
Why is losing bad in tennis but losing in basketball is actually good? It turns out it’s all about the size of the discrepancy. When you’re, again, down by a point in basketball, you’re so close, you can almost taste it, you’re right there, if you work a little harder, you can make it. If you’re a set behind in tennis, that’s not so close you can almost taste it. You can’t even smell it, you’re very far away. It’s almost like being 20 or 30 points behind in basketball. You’re so far behind you get demotivated and you often give up.
Bringing this back to the workplace and motivating employees or teams or entire organizations, we really have to be careful about the others that we compare people to. Peers can be a powerful motivating force, can get us to work harder, try harder and even perform better, but it depends on the type of peers that we compare others to. If we compare people to others that are very far ahead of them, “Hey, look at this top performer in the company, they’re doing so well, we should all be like her, she’s doing so.” Well, that’s great if I’m doing almost as well as she is because I feel like if I just work a little harder, I can make it but if I’m very far behind where she is, I’m going to sit there going, “There’s no way I’m going to make it. I might as well just give up.”
We really need to pick what are called proximal peers or others that are just a little bit ahead of where we are, compare employees to someone who’s doing just a little bit better than they are, someone who had their job previously but did just a little better and got promoted, someone where they feel like that comparison is relevant, they feel like they can make up that last ground and they can do that well if they try or encourage them to work harder and perform better as a result.
As the final question before we shift to the last two questions that I asked all guests, you hit on it briefly earlier, but what are you the most curious about right now? Where do you see your research going?
In both consulting projects and academic research, we’re doing a lot of work on how we parse insight from language. Whether we talk about customer views that are online, whether we talk about customer service calls that happen over the phone, whether you’re talking about written content that we write and some of it that gets read and some of it doesn’t, almost everything we do from the emails we send, from the language we use in presentations, from the resumes we send, all of these things involve language in one way or another, but some of those things are more successful than others. Using certain words on customer service calls makes people more likely to buy the product again or be more satisfied with the interaction.
Certain ways of writing content makes it more engaging and makes people more likely to continue reading it. We’ve even done work with movie scripts or song lyrics and looking at how is the way that stories are told or the way that song lyrics relate to what’s usually talked about in that genre impact the success of those songs. In all of these things, we’re parsing textual data, whether you want to talk about natural language processing or machine learning or you want to talk about automated text analysis. There’s really a lot of opportunity out there for companies to mine the data that they already have or collect new data to gain a lot of insight. We’re doing a lot of work there and I think it’s really somewhat the future of social science.
Well, thank you for your time. That’s a wonderful spot to shift to our final two rapid-fire questions that we ask all guests. The first one is this, if you could describe your leadership style, but I only gave you one word, what would that word be?
Can I use a hyphenated word?
Go for it.
I’ll call it audience-focused. Whether I’m teaching in the classroom, working with a research assistant, working with a company managing employees. I’m not the best at it, but I try really hard to think about them, and what their needs are, and meeting those needs. The more we think about that customer, whether that customer is truly a customer or that customer is an employee, a colleague, a boss, whoever it might be, the more we keep them in the center, the more effective we’ll be in meeting their needs and helping them meet ours.
The final question is this, what is the best piece of advice that you have ever received?
Someone once said, always be curious. I really love that phrase. I think whatever we’re doing, whether it’s the most exciting part of our job or the least exciting part of our job, there’s always an opportunity to find something new and find something interesting in it. If you look at things like This American Life and other shows that the people love, they often take something very mundane and ordinary, and they go a level below the level we usually think about. When you look at things a level below almost everything is interesting.
If you look at things from a child’s eyes where everything is new, I think you can learn a lot of things and really find things quite engaging.
This interview has been edited for clarity.