Scott Downey

Dr. Scott Downey, Director and Professor, Purdue University Center for Food and Agricultural Business

The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind by Jonah Berger

I often say that in Purdue University’s Agricultural Economics department comprised of over 30 faculty members, I’m the only one who isn’t an economist; I’m a behaviorist. I came to ag econ late in life after a career in management, and I haven’t worked a day since. I love the field of behavior and understanding how human brains make decisions. Jonah Berger, author of The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind, is a faculty member at Wharton, and he is really, probably the me I would like to be. A true behaviorist with a PhD from Stanford, he’s written several terrific books on behavior, mostly in a business context. You may be familiar with his other best-selling book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On.

The Catalyst addresses the behavioral issue of how people change. Berger is a great storyteller and opens the book with an example of a hostage negotiator getting a criminal to surrender. He describes the SWAT team ready to break down the door, knowing the criminal was ready to die before being captured. The process of creating this change and others includes five different components of what Berger describes as inertia: reluctance, endowment, distance, uncertainty and corroborating evidence.

An important idea we should all remember is that change is not often made by pushing harder, explaining harder, selling harder, incentivizing more or creating policies. Often, the best way to create change is to have a clear vision, connect with the people you want to change, and help to remove barriers in the way of making the vision a reality. These concepts draw from Kurt Lewin’s research from 100 years ago on change management: unfreeze, change, refreeze (or storming, forming and norming, if you prefer). These ideas aren’t new, but Berger does a great job of giving practical examples. I use these well-tested concepts frequently as they connect to sales, leadership and management, but there are many different applications. While Berger mentions a bit about politics, the real application is in influencing inside an organization and with customers.