If you're searching for evidence that most people think change is hard, you need look no further than the internet. The web is littered with advice on breaking bad habits, making positive changes, and revamping your life. If making such changes were simple, people wouldn't need this mountain of tips, you'd assume.
But there's a difference between believing change is hard and change actually being hard. Are we all correct in our assumption that improving our lives is going to be a steep uphill climb? New evidence suggests that most people are more pessimistic about their chances of success than they should be.
Is becoming worse easier than becoming better?
The series of ten studies, conducted by psychologists Ed O'Brien and Nadav Klein at the University of Chicago, was highlighted recently by Nick Tasler on Quartz. The research asked a simple question -- when has enough evidence piled up that a person is judged to have truly changed? Is one good (or ominous) sign enough? Do you need three changed instances? Ten? A thousand?
The researchers asked study subjects this question in a great variety of contexts, including weight loss, athletic performance, and academic grades. But no matter what sort of change the psychologists asked about the same pattern emerged -- we're a lot more skeptical of positive changes than we are of negative ones, requiring more evidence to believe that someone has genuinely improved than we need to conclude that they've made a permanent change for the worse.
"Most of us--whether we know it or not--hold the belief that change for the better is much more difficult than change for the worse," writes Tasler, summing up the findings.
An expectation of failure (or success) can be a self-fulfilling prophecy
That information is interesting if you're trying to figure out whether your favorite basketball player is just having a bad season or whether his career is in genuine decline. But it's also important to understand this bias exists when evaluating your own chances of making positive changes in your life.
"This bias skews our attempts to evaluate change. When our boss or our spouse or our company or our kids try to make a change, we tend to ignore signs of progress. By contrast, we interpret signs of decline as legitimate indicators that this person, or company, or society, has officially begun circling the drain," explains Tasler. "It's easy to see how this bias creates a self-fulfilling prophecy."
In short, your own irrational pessimism about the the difficulty of making positive changes is probably making these sort of transformations markedly more difficult and causing you to get discouraged too easily. Understand that improving isn't as unlikely as you probably imagine and you'll give yourself an instant leg up when it comes to reaching your goals.
O'Brien and Klein's research proves this. When they made up an imaginary sport, X-ball, and told study subjects that most people become proficient at it despite early difficulties learning the ins and outs of the game, the subjects became much more optimistic about people's ability to succeed as X-ball players despite initial setbacks.
The good news, therefore, is twofold: not only are you more likely to be successful than you probably imagine, but even just knowing this simple fact boosts your optimism and with it your chances of making positive, permanent changes. So no more excuses -- get out there and chase your goals.