Reluctant learners? Here’s how to open their minds
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Reluctant learners? Here’s how to open their minds

Is there a way for you to help learners see the need for change – and increase the odds that they’ll actually take action? A new study suggests a simple intervention can help you convert skeptical and defensive learners into believers.

The research

The study – conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Michigan – investigated how to change people’s minds and, more importantly, their behavior. They chose a behavior that many people struggle with – physical exercise.

The participants were made up of people who didn’t engage in enough physical activity, as recommended by health professionals. When asked why they didn’t exercise, the participants generally got defensive and cited the typical reasons, such as lack of time or energy.

The researchers divided the subjects into two groups to test the result of two different change messages. Group One, the control group, received a series of health-related messages, such as the short and long-term physical benefits of exercise.



Group Two first received self-affirmation messages that had nothing to do with health or exercise. These messages simply asked participants to reflect on things that were important to them – their family or their religion, for example. Afterwards, they were given a brief health message about exercise.

Both groups were then outfitted for a month with devices that monitor physical activity. When the groups reported back, researchers found that the control group’s exercise habits hadn’t changed. But those in Group Two, who were barely even asked to think about their health, steadily increased their physical activity over the course of the month. The difference between the two groups was drastic.


The study found that when people reflect on what’s important to them – their values, their beliefs, their loved ones – they activate a part of the brain associated with self-relevant information. In effect, the self-affirmation exercise stimulated the part of the brain most receptive to hearing a new message, seeing it as relevant and acting on it.

As a result, participants weren’t defensive when they were given a brief health message – quite the opposite. They perceived it as highly relevant to their lives, and decided to change their behavior and start exercising.

The head researcher, Dr. Emily Falk, concluded, “Our findings highlight that something as simple as reflecting on core values can fundamentally change the way our brains respond to the kinds of messages we encounter every day. Over time, that makes the potential impact huge.”


Ask learners to reflect. Instead of giving trainees tons of evidence about why the training is important or why the new way of doing things is better, consider asking them what’s important. Ask them why succeeding at work is a priority for them, or what they love most about their job. This will prime them to be more receptive to your message of change.

Use for difficult topics. Not all training topics inspire defensiveness and resistance. When training learners on innocuous concepts or minor shifts in their routine, there’s no need to break out the big guns. But if you’re trying to significantly change the way people do their jobs, consider using a self-affirmation exercise first to open their minds to possibilities of doing things differently.

Falk, E. B., et al. (2015). Self-affirmation alters the brain’s response to health messages and subsequent behavior change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(7), 1977-1982.

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