Biology in the News Explained

The irrational roots of resistance to change

Continued from Part 1:

The tactic of shooting down change using the straw man that the new system being developed to improve upon the current system cannot achieve perfection is common to many situations, at many levels. When the University of Montana Western was making the decision to change the way it scheduled classes, there was intense opposition from a few community members who simply feared change, no matter the reason for the change. The new system, known as block scheduling (taking one course at a time instead of four or five over the course of the semester), has previously been established at several other small colleges, beginning with Colorado College in the late 60′s. Their data, and Montana Western’s own from a pilot program, showed that overall it is a clearly superior system for student learning and retention. And yet critics continued to make unsubstantiated proclamations such as “the system will harm athletes who have to miss class” and, “students will not be able to graduate in four years.”

It turns out that the system is better for students who have to miss classes (for sports or any other university function) because of the available flexibility in scheduling (because students are taking just one class, professors can schedule their class time a multitude of ways), and the fact that they only have to make up work for one class instead of several. And the program was required by the state university system to be designed so that students are able to graduate in four years. Under the old system, the Montana Western graduation rate was something like 35% over six years. So the idea that the campus was somehow making things harder for students was complete nonsense. But just like David Gregory and congressional opponents of health-care reform, these opponents ignored any statements pointing out the systemic dysfunctionality of the status quo, and just kept repeating their no-change mantra.

There is actually an area of sociological literature devoted to the phenomenon of irrational resistance to organizational change. Some of the cognitive errors associated with irrational resistance to change have been defined as: tunnel vision, selective abstraction, arbitrary inference, overgeneralization, polarized thinking (i.e., everything is black or white), and negative labeling (Bovey and Hede, 2001). Selective abstraction and overgeneralization were commonly used by opponents of block scheduling. For example, it is always easy to cherry pick a few individual students for whom the semester schedule is preferable, just as it is easy to find anecdotes of Canadians (cruelly and outrageously) denied procedures that they then obtain through the (beneficent and superior) American system.

Polarized thinking, though, is most applicable to the problem at hand: if you believe that everything is either black or white, or either good or evil, then you do not have the capacity to compare two imperfect solutions to a problem. The fallacy, of course, is the assumption that the perfect solution exists, when of course it does not.

Republicans (and some Democrats) in congress are disingenuously opposing change on the grounds that none of the solutions proposed will be a perfect, ideal solution (especially given the unjustified power that special interests are guaranteed to have in its outcome, thanks to those very same legislators). They are starting to realize that promotion of the status quo is unacceptable to Americans, so on Meet the Press, Senator McConnell stated that of course he is all for reform, just not the proposals on the table. And amazingly, Gregory never asked what he proposes as a rational alternative, and why it would be better.

There is no point, of course, because most of the proposals being discussed are trapped in what academics in the field call “single-loop thinking.” Single-loop thinking means that ways of doing things are based on a perceived outcome in line with our personal comfort zone and beliefs. We assume a certain outcome based on our usual way of doing things, and avoid actually checking to see if that outcome is the one we are getting. The point of the exercise thus becomes the process, usually the habitual “way things are done here,” rather than the desired outcome itself.

“Double-loop thinking” breaks this cycle by rejecting mistaken assumptions, and making the actual desired result the point of the process. For example, it is single-loop thinking that requires that health insurance in this country be controlled by for-profit, private companies. All of the health-care “reform” solutions on the table are based on that assumption, which in turn based on the faulty assumptions that private control represents “free enterprise,” and that private business is more efficient than government. Those who oppose a public option do so because it violates these assumptions. That these assumptions are faulty is completely beside the point, as outlined above.

Those who support a public option are focused not on the process of delivering health care, but on the results. They are engaging in double-loop thinking, because they know that tweaking the current system without questioning our assumptions about why we need to do it this way is very unlikely to change the current poor results. Providing the public option as a choice also adds an elegant benefit of actively testing the assumptions of those who oppose its mere availability.

The irrational strategies of those who are resistant to change tie into recent provocative studies relating brain activity with political opinion. Amodio et al (2007) used an abstracted cognitive test coupled with fMRI of the brain to obtain data supporting the idea that those who describe themselves as “liberal” are more comfortable with a world in which there are shades of gray in addition to black and white. Those describing themselves as “conservative” are more comfortable seeing the world in black and white only. It isn’t exactly a bold new hypothesis that those who use irrational strategies to avoid change are more likely to be in the former group, but the concept of “polarized thinking” dovetails interestingly with the known science. Of course, those who are resistant to change also do not easily accept the scientific method, which depends upon the willingness of the individual to change his or her world view as evidence to the contrary accumulates. The actions and statements of the previous administration, and those who still consider themselves supportive of it, are informal support for this.

But largely because of the hole that the single-loop thinking of the last eight (or even longer) years has got us into, we had better hope that the rationality of double-loop thinking prevails in the end. Because the actual data on the current state of health care show clearly that we are on a trajectory on which the “rationing” of health care will mean that only an ever-shrinking percentage of the increasingly well-to-do will get any at all.


Amodio, D.M., J.T. Jost, S.L. Master & C.M. Yee, 2007. Neurocognitive correlates of liberalism and conservatism. Nature Neuroscience 10:1246-1247.

Bovey, W.H, and A. Hede, 2001. Resistance to organizational change: the role of cognitive and affective processes. Leadership & Organization Development Journal 22(8):372-382.

Tagg, J., 2007. Double-Loop Learning in Higher education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 39(4):36-41.


3 Responses to “The irrational roots of resistance to change”

  1. Rob Swanson says:

    A friend’s son is a good football player but so-so student, at best. He is being recruited by Cornell, in Iowa, which has block scheduling.

    As a former mathematician who retains connections to the math department, and having thought about math a great deal in my life, I have always thought that a semester system is best for learning it. We always used to say that you learn a subject in math at one level in an undergrad, another in the grad course, better yet when you teach it as a TA to undergrads, and finally best when you (if you reach that level) become a professor. It becomes simpler as your scope expands.

    Put differently, math takes time to sink in.

    I recently encountered this phenomenon myself. I was discussing something with the Chair of the Math Dept at Michigan, who is world class. He is an Algebrist, and mentioned that some problem (for a finite field, F, its multiplicative group is cyclic) is tricky to prove. This made me wonder whether I could still do it after 25+ years away from the subject. I did. It took me about a week to get it correct, but my instinct on how to start the problem was pretty much close to dead-on. Something only brute force would have gotten me in college.

    I could, I suppose, be persuaded that some computational math courses might be taught in a month; but once you start injecting proofs (epsilon-delta proofs, for example, for continuity), it seems students get quite mystified, and it takes a while for them to realize it isn’t so mystifying.

    I don’t know enough about chemistry or physics to know whether they are similar, though I could imagine it.

    I know slow-going in math is quite helpful. It also allows a prof to give tough problems, with a week to solve them. It is the rigor of solving those tough problems that trains the really good mathematicians, or gets those who will pursue other careers to think in detailed and logical ways – to strive for excellence.

  2. Rob Swanson says:

    oh, and by the way, there is a reason Edmund Burke’s ideas are still famous and we recognize the importance of KISS.

    A public option is simply a radical change. Life’s experiences say take things step-by-step. Whatever form of cognition you chose to attach to that method, I would say that is a much more compelling argument than any you make here.

    To be crude about it, we can put out house fires by explodiing the houses that are burning. It will often prevent spread to other houses. But the method is too radical (not in the political sense of the word).

    I dare say, you haven’t the foggiest notion of the complexity of incentives that a public option will create. Did you know for example that certain Medicare pricing rules actually create an opportunity for collusion by healthcare providers? it took economists a while to figure this out; a subtle fact, which of course businessmen figured out pretty quickly.

    The system is more complex than simple phrases like “public option” indicate. Too many moving parts. Acknowledge that. Any good scientist tries to eliminate variables in trying to draw inferences about phenomena; and introducing complexity into experiments just results in almost hopelessly bad experiments from which no good conclusions can be drawn.

    The process of trying to isolate variables for testing, is just anohter way of saying, KISS, take baby steps. Humans are very bad at conceptualizing any more than the simplest, most well-defined of problems, and the inter-workings of our vast health care system is anything but simple, even if someone can slap a label on some complex plan and call it siimply “public option.” There must be a phrase in academia for attaching a misleading shorthand to a problem, and using that shorthand rather than the problem itself, to try to think out a solution.

  3. biotunes says:

    Hi Rob -

    A lot of people made the assumption about math that you are making now back during our transition to block scheduling, and as someone from a campus which has taught math both ways, I can unequivocally state that the data show you are absolutely wrong. A math professor (my husband) who taught three courses on the semester system in the fall, and then the same three on the block in the spring, was scrambling to add new material to those courses in the spring. Because the students were focused on ONE THING, as their brains were designed to do, they did not have to be retaught the same concepts over and over, which is what happens on the semester. Hence, a lot more time for new material.

    Now, if you really know about current college math courses, you might counter that most of them are not about real thinking, which is true. But although the first set of courses my husband taught were 100-level gen eds for freshmen, the same result holds true for the upper-level courses such as geometry with proofs. The reason it took so long for stuff to “sink in” in your experience is that your brain was distracted by too much other stuff – i.e. your other courses. Imagine spending eight hours a day thinking only about math. (You might think you’d get burned out, but then again, it’s only for three and a half weeks.) It’s called immersion, and for some reason everyone seems to think that’s a good way to learn a language, but not anything else. They’re wrong.

    One of the ways this becomes obvious is if a professor says on Monday, “Here is a problem. You have no idea how to even approach it now, but on Friday you will turn in the solution.” Imagine the thrill students get when it turns out to be true. Part of what helps them succeed is that they get immediate feedback that they are actually *learning* something. The value of this may not seem obvious to you and I who were academic geeks from the start, but to a first generation college student ranch kid who assumes that she “can’t do math” because “it’s too hard,” it’s incalculable. The students gain confidence, and they work harder. And they spend way bigger blocks of time *thinking*, which god knows is rare enough at every educational level these days.

    Anyway, thanks for proving the whole point of this essay by your response. :-)

    As for health care – simply adding a public option to what we already have, and allowing everyone the choice of what they want, is about as baby-step as you can get, given that a majority of us out here (that is, a majority before the massive right-wing misinformation campaign) would prefer to see for-profit insurance companies eliminated entirely and conversion to single-payer, AND, that many countries have better, cheaper health care through reforms they have already made in that direction. You speak as if the wheel is being invented here, that we have no idea of the implications of government insurance. That’s laughable given we have a lot of government insurance already (if the problem is creation of incentives that lead us in the wrong direction, those can be fixed – god knows that’s pretty much the no. 1 problem the president’s trying to deal with).

    I dare say that if you are happy with your for-profit, private, insurance company, you either have a lot of money (and thus a much better plan than the masses), or you have never had a serious illness. Get back to me when you’ve had an HMO in charge of the actual treatment of your cancer, heart problems, etc. I have. Personally, I’ll worry about things like incentives when I actually get the coverage that they told me I paid for, without ridiculous piles of paperwork (see here) …which in England, where I lived for a time (and whose system of course is not perfect), simply doesn’t exist.

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