Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday: “Switch” by Chip and Dan Heath

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This book sells itself. Who doesn’t want to break a bad habit or learn how to maintain healthier routines? It’s called Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, and it’s written by brothers Chip and Dan Heath.

Read this book to map out a plan for change, whether personally or professionally.

Key Takeaways

  • Changing a habit or a culture is like forcing an elephant carrying a writer to change direction. One must not only convince the rider (the rational mind) but also the elephant (the emotions). In addition, one must make the path easier to follow. In this book, the writers describe these three main ways to encourage change: direct the rider; motivate the elephant; and shape the path.
  • To direct the rider: find the bright spots; script the critical moves; and point to the destination.
  • To motivate the elephant: find the feeling; shrink the change; and grow your people.
  • To shape the path: tweak the environment; build habits; rally the herd; and keep the switch going.
  • The Happiness Hypothesis study showed that our emotional side is like an dlephant and our rational side is its rider, with the rider holding the reins and seeming to be in control. However, the rider’s control is precarious as it is small compared to the elephant. When the elephant and the rider disagree, the rider always loses.
  • On finding the bright spots: The “bright spots” refers to the positive aspects of a situation or a person. To find the bright spots, one must avoid the “fundamental attribution error”, which is the tendency to attribute a person’s behavior to their inherent qualities instead of the circumstances they are in. This is why shows like “The Dog Whisperer” or “Super Nanny”, which depict the transformation of “bad” dogs or kids, captivate our attention. The fact that these dogs or kids can be reformed in a short intervention amazes us–but the truth is that they were never bad. They had bright spots already, but those spots had to be highlighted.
  • On scripting the critical moves: In Miner County, South Dakota, high school students conducted a survey to revive their dying community. They found that if residents spent just 10% more of their disposable income at home, the local economy would be boosted by $7 million. A year later, the amount of money spent in Miner County had increased by $15.6 million, showing that clarity is important for change to be successful.
  • Another way to script the critical moves is to preload decisions. Preloading a decision refers to making a decision in advance, such as deciding to go to the gym after dropping off the kids, to increase the likelihood of following through with it. This technique involves action triggers, which make the decision easier by reducing the mental effort required to make it later. By preloading the decision, there is less work involved in making it later on.
  • A research study conducted by Peter Golwitzer and Veronica Brandstatter tracked college students who had the opportunity to earn extra credit by writing a paper by December 26th. While most students had the intention of writing the paper, only 33% actually wrote and submitted it. However, for a different group of students in the study, the researchers required them to set action triggers–to note in advance when and where they intended to write the report. The results showed a significant improvement, with a whopping 75% of those students successfully writing the report.
  • On pointing to the destination: Crystal Jones was a teacher for Teach for America in 2003, teaching first grade in Atlanta, Georgia. The school lacked a kindergarten program, so she had to use language that motivated her students. Jones told her students, “By the end of this school year, you will be third graders,” and held a “graduation” ceremony when they reached second and third grade. She referred to her students as “scholars” and, by the end of the year, more than 90% of the kids were reading at or above a third-grade level.
  • For change to be effective, it must be clear and specific. A local media campaign was created to encourage people to switch to 1% milk and it was a success, increasing the market share of low-fat milk from 18% to 35%.
  • On finding the feeling: Robyn Waters, a “Trend Manager” at Target, played a crucial role in transforming the company from being similar to Walmart to the iconic “Tarzhay”. She achieved this by creatively incorporating displays of colorful M&Ms and the latest Apple iMac computers to demonstrate the importance of incorporating color in their offerings.
  • The rider wants to “analyze-think-change” but in reality we “see-feel-change.”
  • Change can be facilitated by visual and emotional cues. For example, a presentation on reducing spending on gloves was made more effective by laying out all the gloves with different prices on a table, rather than using spreadsheets.
  • On shrinking the change: In 2007, Alia Cru and Ellen Langer conducted a study on hotel maids and their exercise habits. The study divided the maids into two groups, with one group being told that they were already meeting the recommended exercise levels, while the other group was informed about the benefits of exercising. After 4 weeks, the results showed that the maids who were told that they were good exercisers lost an average of 1.8 pounds, which is equivalent to almost a half-pound per week, a significant weight loss. However, the other group of maids did not experience any weight loss.
  • On growing your people: Lovelace Hospital Systems in Albuquerque, NM was facing rapid turnover, a common issue in the healthcare industry. To address this, they hired Susan Wood of Appreciative Inquiry, a method of transforming organizations by focusing on their strengths rather than weaknesses. Wood discovered that the nurses who remained at the hospital longer believed in the noble nature of their profession. In response, the hospital created an orientation program that emphasized the admirable qualities of nursing and established mentorship programs to enhance the nurses’ skills and knowledge. Employee satisfaction surveys indicated that these measures were effective, and as a result, turnover decreased by 30% over the following year.
  • On tweaking the environment: In 2000, a study was conducted in a Chicago movie theater where free popcorn and soft drinks were offered to movie-goers. The popcorn was intentionally made to be unappetizing, but even so, the results were surprising. People with larger popcorn buckets ended up eating 53% more popcorn than those with smaller buckets, and most of them were not aware of this fact. The results showed that the environment can play a huge role in affecting behavior.
  • In another study, participants were given chocolates or radishes and then asked to solve puzzles. Those who had only eaten radishes gave up after 8 minutes, while those who had eaten cookies gave up after 19 minutes, showing that self-control is an exhaustible resource.
  • It was also noted that our mind works differently when we are supervised, such as when learning something new, compared to when we are not, such as when driving a car. This is why shopping can be tiring.
  • On rallying the herd: We look for environmental cues and examples of others to know how to act. Therefore, make your change feel like a norm that has already been established. For example: “In the 1980s, Jay Winsten, a public health professor at Harvard, got interested in the idea of a ‘designated driver’..” unknown in the US at that time. “Winsten and his team collaborated with producers, writers and actors from more than 160 prime-time TV programs, sprinkling designated-driver moments naturally into the plots.” Requested just “5 seconds” of dialogue featuring the idea. “In 1991, three years after the campaign launched, nine out of ten people were familiar with the term designated driver.”
  • On keeping the switch going: Punishment rarely works. Instead, change the environment. Take small steps. Praise all steps on right path. You will get there.

About the Author

Chip Heath and Dan Heath are American authors and speakers who specialize in the fields of business and psychology. They are brothers and co-authors of several popular books, including Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. In Switch, the Heath brothers use insights from psychology, sociology, and other disciplines to explain why change is difficult and to offer practical advice for making change easier. The book is widely regarded as a practical and accessible guide to overcoming resistance and making real, lasting change in both personal and organizational contexts. Chip Heath is a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, while Dan Heath is a senior fellow at Duke University’s CASE center. Together, they are known for their ability to make complex concepts accessible and actionable for a general audience.


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