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Change your assumptions, change your life

How basic assumptions impact our ability to change

Article by: Nancy Tobler
February 15, 2017

At this point—a month and a half into the new year—many of us have abandoned our New Year’s resolutions—exercise regularly, make ten sales calls a day, eat healthy. Our New Year’s resolutions are typically all great ideas. Why is it so hard to change our behavior? To create a change in our lives we must develop an understanding of how and where the change we are trying to make occurs—in our actions or in our thoughts. Is it a behavior change that fits our basic assumptions about the world or are we working against our basic assumptions?

When confronted by the statistics on New Year’s resolutions, we might despair thinking that change is impossible but—reality check—it isn’t! We change. Adaptation and change occur regularly—whether by choice or by some overwhelming circumstances. If I did not believe humans could change I would not be in the education field. People pay money to make changes to how they see the world. Often distributors who join direct selling companies state that recognition of accomplishments is one of their reasons for joining a direct selling company (see DSA.org for more information). Accomplishments involve change.

“I keep thinking about the story I told my children about the Little Engine That Could. “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.” Those words can change our lives.”

If we are capable of change, why can change be so hard to make? Janoff-Bulman and Schwarzberg (1991) explain the difficulty as a function of our basic assumptions about how the world works. What are basic assumptions? Basic assumptions occur at a level where we rarely even consider that they are occurring. At the basic level, I may believe that I have good sense of humor or that I am a good person who helps others. At the peripheral level, I may believe that I tell funny jokes. Behavioral change that goes against a basic assumption may be very difficult to obtain.

One of the interesting aspects about basic assumptions is that they also can change. Basic assumptions might change directly. One interesting research study about college students found that when students believed that intelligence is malleable rather than fixed they were more likely to work harder to understand difficult information and did better in the class (Micari, & Pazos, 2014). For students, the belief that intelligence is malleable may have added to their existing basic assumption that they can learn new things, or the belief may have been a new assumption. Either way, the interesting finding is that when students were exposed to the idea that intelligence changes, they worked harder at obtaining new knowledge.

The behavior changes that fit my existing basic assumptions are the easiest to make. If I believe I’m incapable of resisting sweets, I’m not likely to make a habit of eating healthy. However, you can change your basic assumptions—including your basic assumptions about change itself. I have basic assumptions about how good I am at change or self-efficacy (Bandura, 1994). This basic assumption on self-efficacy is key to how well we approach and accomplish all of the goals in our lives.

I keep thinking about the story I told my children about the Little Engine That Could. “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.” Those words can change our lives.

Now you may be asking. “OK. That sounds nice. But how do I get myself to believe that I can change?” Several approaches exist that you might make. You can behave in a new way—such as make 3 sales calls—and then pause to recognize that you made a behavior change. You started! You are capable of change! Behaving as if we are successful can weaken that basic assumption that states, “I am not good at change.” Keep behaving in ways that are counter to the basic assumption that doesn’t benefit you—no matter how incremental the behavior—and your assumption will pivot.

Change is possible. Look at all of the aspects of your life that you have changed. You learned to eat foods that you did not like as a child. You learned to do statistics. You learned to be a better writer. We have all changed. Part of the reason for success in change is the belief that you can change.

Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human behavior (Vol. 4, pp. 71-81). New York: Academic Press. (Reprinted in H. Friedman [Ed.], Encyclopedia of mental health. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998).
Janoff-Bulman, R., & Schwartzberg, S. S. (1991). Toward a general model of personal change. Handbook of social and clinical psychology: The health perspective, 488-508.
Micari, M., & Pazos, P. (2014). Worrying about what others think: A social-comparison concern intervention in small learning groups. Active Learning in Higher Education, 15(3), 249-262.
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Personal Development, All Articles

Nancy Tobler

Nancy Tobler has a PhD in communication from the University of Utah. She specializes in research on how organizations change,...

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