For those too young to remember, Nike’s “Just Do It!” campaign began in 1988. The slogan and accompanying ads encouraged everyone, regardless of age, physical build, or athletic ability, to get moving (in Nike shoes and gear, of course). While it was a wildly successful marketing strategy, the reality is that, as human beings, we have evolved to “Just do the same thing we always do” because doing something new or different is harder and involves significantly more risk.
During graduate school, I earned my keep teaching introductory educational psychology courses at Michigan State University. One of my favorite units covered a variety of topics related to motivation and why we do (or don’t do) certain things. Without going into too much detail and risking oversimplifying a complex topic, as a rule, until we are faced with a compelling reason to try something new or different, we stick to what we know.
Think about infants and the progression from being completely immobile, to crawling, and eventually to walking and running. Later-born children tend to reach these gross motor milestones at a younger age than their older siblings. The reason is simple and again rooted in evolutionary history. The first child receives the undivided attention of parent(s) and often has everything he or she desires. In comparison, subsequent children cannot receive the same amount of individual attention, and can observe first-hand the benefits of locomotion their older sib(s) enjoy. As a result, they are motivated to work through the challenges and certain falls and bruises to get moving at an earlier age.
I know that most of you have little—if any—contact with infants in your day to day programs, but the universal lesson is that kids and adults become motivated to try something new when what they’re currently doing is not meeting their goals. This simple truth explains why some children embrace new opportunities while others refuse to try anything new. It also, coincidently, helps to explain why your staff members (and gasp, even you) frequently show resistance to new programs or policies.
Met With Resistance
Let’s look at Jillian, an 8-year-old girl who is enrolled in a beginner swim class. She’s been in the class for a while and is perfectly comfortable doing what is asked of her, as long as she can keep her head above water. In fact, Jillian really enjoys the class and particularly loves the “free time” after the lesson is complete when she gets to play with her best friend, Amanda. Jillian’s trouble starts when the instructor asks her to put her face in the water. Much to the instructor’s chagrin and despite her best efforts, Jillian steadfastly refuses.
After about a month, Amanda and most of the other children move on to another class, but because Jillian still won’t put her face in the water, she is forced to repeat the beginner class. To her parents’ and instructor’s great surprise on the first day of the new session, Jillian quickly and resolutely closes her eyes, scrunches her face, and sticks her whole head under the water. After doing a double take, her instructor stammers out effusive praise for her effort, and then asks why she chose today of all days to “take the plunge.” Without missing a beat, Jillian replies, “I want to be in the other class with Amanda.”
Regardless of whether your department serves infants or offers swimming lessons, Jillian’s story illustrates the basic psychology of motivation and how most of us ultimately commit to try something new. In Jillian’s case, as long as she had a chance to play with Amanda, there was no good reason to push past her initial unease about being underwater. However, when choosing not to go underwater was no longer adaptive, she overcame her anxiety in order to receive a desired outcome.