By: Jonah Berger



We all have things we want to change. People in sales and marketing want to change their prospect's minds. If you work for a company, you want to change your boss' perspective. If you are a business leader, you want to change your organisation. If you are a parent, you want to change the way your children behave in certain situations. I could go on.

But as we all know, change is hard. One of the biggest things standing in our way is inertia. It's the reason that families goes back to the same vacation spot each year, and why companies are hesitant to start new initiatives and don't like killing off older ones.

As author Jonah Berger points out, our tendency is to push to try and overcome the inertia. If your client isn't buying the pitch, you send them a slide deck full of reasons and facts. If your boss isn't buying your idea, give him more facts and a longer explanation.

But as is often the case, the negotiators at the FBI are one step ahead of us when it comes to changing the hearts and minds of people, when change is hard. Negotiators like Greg Vecchi rely on a different method, one that removes barriers rather than fighting them.

Join us for the next 10 minutes as we explore how you can create change by becoming a Catalyst.

A Better Way To Change Minds, Inspired by Chemistry

In the science world, chemists use a special set of substances to facilitate change. These substances clean the exhaust in your car and turn petroleum into your bicycle helmet. Most importantly for our purposes, they speed change by enabling molecules that might take years to interact to do so in mere seconds. In essence, they remove roadblocks and lower barriers to an interaction.

And that's the metaphor Berger uses for the entire book - that the best and easiest way to create change in any situation is to become a catalyst. When we remove roadblocks and lower barriers that keep people from taking action, change occurs.

It begins with a simple question: Why hasn't the person changed already? What's blocking them?

Why does this method work so well? Why does Greg Vecchi get criminals to walk out of houses and surrender on their own accord without any violence, nine times out of ten? It works because change doesn't always require more horsepower. Sometimes you just need to find and unlock the parking break.

We'll explore five ways you can become a catalyst, and they form the handy acronym REDUCE: reduce Reactance, ease Endowment, shrink Distance, alleviate Uncertainty, and find Corroborating Evidence.

Principle 1: Reduce Reactance

When people are pushed, their natural reaction is to push back. It's like they have built in missile defence systems. A missile comes in, a missile goes out to destroy that missile. People have a radar that goes off when it senses that somebody is trying to convince them of something.

The scientific term for this is reactance. It's an uncomfortable state of mind that people feel when their freedom is lost or threatened. This is true not only when you are telling people what to do, but also when you tell them what not to do.

Like that time Tide tried telling people not to eat their Tide Pods. The internet has a tendency to create stupid behaviour, like eating laundry detergent pods because they look so pretty. That started what is now known as the Tide Pod Challenge, which doesn't seem like much of a challenge to me, but that's beside the point. The goal was to film yourself eating a Tide Pod, which is obviously not what you are supposed to do with them, and potentially dangerous.

In response, Tide put out some messaging with the help of Rob Gronkowski, the football star. Did that help? Of course not, because reactance. It just spurred people on to more and more idiotic feats of detergent eating. The same holds true when alcohol prevention messages cause college students to drink more. And when telling people that smoking is bad for their health causes them to smoke more.

The solution to this problem is to get people to persuade themselves instead. You can do that by allowing for agency - by finding the middle ground between being completely hands off and telling them exactly what to do.

There are four ways you can do this:

  1. Provide a menu. When you give people a limited set of options, you both give them sense of autonomy and a direction in which to head.
  2. Ask, don't tell. By asking questions that elicit what people want instead of telling them what they want, they are more likely to take action. People have a tendency to behave consistently with whatever answer they give.
  3. Highlight a gap. By pointing out a disconnect between a person's thoughts and actions and what they might recommend for others, you can get people into action.
  4. Start with understanding. By putting yourself in the shoes of the other person, you build trust and understanding, which eventually makes it easier for the other person to change.

Principle 2: Ease Endowment

You've likely heard the saying "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." That's our natural wiring as human beings. Unless what we are currently doing is producing disastrous results, we likely don't want to switch. This is the status quo bias.

There are two main tactics you can use to battle this.

1.Highlight the cost of inaction

In order to get people out of this natural state, we need to highlight how the status quo - of not taking action - isn't as costless as it seem.

Here's a simple example. Berger was surprised to see his cousin manually type in "Best, Charles" as his sign off to every email he wrote. Berger asked him why he didn't just put that in his email signature to save the time for every email he wrote. His cousin's response was that it only took him a couple of seconds to do it, and besides, he didn't know how to create an email signature, and that would take time to figure out.

So, Berger asked him how many emails he wrote every week, and found out that the number was about 400. Then he asked him again how much time he spent typing "Best, Charles", and the next thing you know Charles is typing "how to create an email signature" into the Google machine.

That's because he had done the math and figured out that he was spending more than 11 hours per year typing his sign off. He had figured out the true cost of inaction.

2.Burn the Ships

Sometimes the resistance to taking action is so strong that asking people to consider the cost of inaction just isn't effective. In these cases you need to go one step further and "burn the ships."

There are many examples of this in history, such as when Muslim commander Tariq ibn Ziyad invaded the Iberian Peninsula in AD 711 and ordered the burning of his fleet of ships to prevent cowardice among his troops.

This tactic acts to take choices off the table, and gets them to consider which new course of action they should take.

Principle 3: Shrink Distance

As we've covered already, everybody has a built-in anti-persuasion system that can sometimes be short circuited by providing information. But sometimes the information can actually backfire on us.


Because the information that we provide needs to be within what Berger calls the "zone of acceptance." If the information is too far outside that zone, it is actually within the "zone of rejection," and your information actually hurts rather than helps.

Here's an example. Imagine we are arguing about whether or not there should be a prohibition on alcohol sales. Now imagine that we are on a football field, and in each end zone there are people who are firmly in one camp or the other - completely committed to prohibition, or completely against it.

Now imagine that there are a bunch of people at different points on the field. People who are on the 25 yard line are mildly for or against prohibition.

Now, finally, imagine that any argument you make that is more than 25 yards away from that person will be summarily rejected.

What this means is that you don't want to try and move somebody from the 25 yard line on one side of the argument more than to the midfield, because if you do, you will be in the zone of rejection and only make them turn around and entrench their position even further.

Practically speaking, this means that you should first figure out exactly where on the spectrum the person you are trying to persuade actually is, and shrink the amount of change you are trying to create in the moment.

There are three ways to do this:

  1. Find the movable middle. When you are dealing with issues that people have strong feelings about, find the people that are already close to the position you want them to take. These are the people you'll likely have the most success with. These are the people where small change creates the biggest impact.
  2. Ask for less. If you want to change the minds of people who are further away, reduce the size of your first ask. Not only are you more likely to succeed, people who make small changes first are much more likely to make more change overall.
  3. Switch the field to find an unsticking point. When somebody is really dug into their position - such is the case when we are dealing with prejudice - the goal is to find a place where there is already agreement and to use that as a pivot point.

Principle 4: Alleviate Uncertainty

One of the reasons people resist change so much is that it often involves uncertainty. Better the devil you know than the one you don't, the saying goes.

Will this new product or service be as good as the old one? It's often very hard to know for sure, which causes us to hit the pause button before we make our decision.

The trick here is to hit the unpause button by making things easier to try.

Removing the uncertainty tax

Nick Swinmurn - a former minor-league baseball ticket salesman - was looking for a particular pair of shoes at a mall in San Francisco one day. After hours of searching he couldn't find what he wanted, and so he had an idea. What if there was a store on the internet that would sell every shoe imaginable, so that you didn't have to waste time searching like Nick had that day.

His first attempt - - struggled. He was running out of cash, and his only saving grace was that he had no competition because nobody else believed this was a good business to be in. The problem, they found out, was that customers didn't know whether or not the shoes they were buying online would fit.

So, they made shipping free, and basically told customers to buy as many shoes as they wanted, keep what they liked, and return the rest for a full refund. All with no shipping fees.

Maybe this is the first time you are hearing about, but I bet it's not the first time you've heard of the company it eventually turned into -

Here are some others ways you can reduce the uncertainty tax and make it more likely that people will take the action you want them to take:

  1. Trialability. Make it easy for people to trial your product or service before making a final decision.
  2. Harness freemium. Create a free version of your product or service that allows your customers to experience the value you produce, and only make them pay when they inevitably want to unlock more valuable features. Companies like Dropbox have grown to multi-billion dollar enterprises using this strategy.
  3. Make it reversible. Making the decision reversible eliminates the uncertainly around the transaction and makes it much more likely that you'll get the commitment you are looking for. Like the pet shelter that gave Berger and his girlfriend the option to return the puppy they were adopting after two weeks.

If you want a catchy phrase to remember for the principles in this section, it's this: easier to try, easier to buy.

Principle 5: Find Corroborating Evidence

We have all heard that social proof is important in marketing. That's why celebrities are used to endorse almost every kind of product or service imaginable.

However, there are is some nuance that sometimes gets lost in this principle that you'll want to consider before slapping up any old testimonial on your product.

When somebody recommends something, it sets off a number of questions in the heads of the people seeing it. For instance, if one of your coworkers tells you a new show they are watching is really great, you might wonder whether or not they tend to like a lot of shows, they they like that particular type of show, and just because they liked it, will I like it?

When you are looking for corroborating evidence, it's important to focus on three things: who, when, and how.


It's important to have the right mix of sources when it comes to social proof.

People are much more likely to persuaded by corroborating evidence when it comes from people who are like them.

And while "more is better" is generally true, if you have 100 testimonials from the same type of people, it will likely be treated as one source of information.

That's why it's important to have diversity in your corroborating evidence - different types of people who endorse your product or service (or the action you are trying to advocate for) will make it more likely that they'll be persuaded.


The next thing to consider is when exposure to these social proof messages will have the largest impact.

The rule of thumb here is that concentration increases impact. All else being equal, hearing about something from multiple sources at the same time will increase the persuasion factor over hearing about something from the same number of people spread out over time.


The last question to ponder is how to deploy your scarce resources. The decision here is to determine whether or not to use a "sprinkler" or a "fire hose" strategy.

For instance, should you target all of your resources into a marketing campaign in a single location, or should you spread it out over a large area, opting for coverage over concentration?

If the resistance to your message is low, opting for the sprinkler strategy is the right decision. You don't need a large concentration of people in one area for a message to spread.

If the resistance to your message is high, opting for the fire hose strategy is the right decision. In order to get any success at all, you need a concentration of people in one location in order for your message to spread. Using the sprinkler strategy in this situation might lead too little or no results at all.


Creating change is hard, but it's possible. The key, Jonah Berger teaches us, is to become a catalyst and remove barriers to action rather than trying to create it by force.

You can do that by remembering and utilising the five ways you can become a catalyst, that form the handy acronym REDUCE: reduce Reactance, ease Endowment, shrink Distance, alleviate Uncertainty, and find Corroborating Evidence.

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