How Do People Change?

Hint: It’s not rubbing their nose in their own messes.


  • Shaming and blaming are unlikely to lead to positive behavior change.
  • Behavior change is more likely in the context of empathy, supervised skill practice, and conscious community.
  • Human behavior is complex, with polarized times calling for us to consider what facilitates positive change and become invested in embodying it.

Cancel culture may be warranted, but lasting behavior change is rarely built off shame-based approaches.

Source: Shutterstock/iQoncept

It’s Tuesday morning at 9:10 a.m. I’m sitting face to face with my veterinarian, or more precisely, my dog’s veterinarian, whose specialty is behavior. I’m willing to bet that every time she’s asked what she does for work she retorts, “I help dog OWNERS behave better,” with a condescending laugh snort. She’s giving me that smug bet-you’ve-never-read-a-single-book-on-dog-training look, even though I can recite long passages from The Art of Raising a Puppy, my hair’s full of peanut butter, and my hands cannot be washed clean of the smell of fake bacon doggie treats. Plus, I’m a human therapist: I know behavior change principles.

She barely makes eye contact while typing my litany of concerns into her computer. My eyes glaze over as she lays out the principles of positive reinforcement, emphasizing that punishment will not work, despite the temptation when my dog is acting like a belligerent toddler on Red-Dye 40 and Prednisone. She uses the term positive reinforcement at least 17 times over the next three minutes, points to their expensive line of designer treats, then hands me a bill for $363.00, and I wonder if there are any positive reinforcement methods for vets to keep their fees more reasonable.

There are no surprises in the stack of pamphlets my vet had loaded me up with: no yelling, hitting, shaming, and rubbing animals’ noses in messes. Shame-based strategies have been proven ineffective, harmful, and counterproductive to the training process.

These animal protocols aren’t unlike human change principles. People learn better through positive reinforcement too. Punishment and shame can backfire: escalating behavior, rather than driving needed, lasting change. This doesn’t mean problematic behavior should be given a pass, but it’s worth examining what can help a person change.

Polarization and group think can drown our ability to foster needed change.

Source: Shutterstock/Zenza Flarini

Within today’s polarized sociopolitical landscape, there’s a noticeable absence of discussion on what can help us unlearn negative and increase positive behaviors. Cancel culture is running rampant, likely because for too long injustice has gone unaddressed, and accountability is severely overdue. And while those who act in ways that are ignorant, selfish, mindless, hurtful, oppressive, discriminatory, or violent must be held accountable, we also need to be talking about what can actually help change problematic behavior.

The brouhaha, even when justifiable, can drown out our ability to focus on what can foster change. Humans are a complex species: on one hand we are subject to primitive instincts and groupthink. On the other, there’s brain plasticity and the capacity to learn and grow and overcome destructive tendencies. Understanding the how of change can help move us to a better place:

1. We need incentives to change.

Positive reinforcement can go a long way when it comes to making needed shifts. Incentives work. Harshness and blame rarely serve as catalysts for meaningful, sustained change. We need to include more carrots to increase appetite for better behavior that fosters improvement.

Renowned neuroscientist Dr. BJ Fogg emphasizes that motivation is the foundation for behavior change, and that incentives are vital. “In order to design successful habits and change your behaviors, you should do three things. Stop judging yourself. Take your aspirations and break them down into tiny behaviors. Embrace mistakes as discoveries and use them to move forward.” Positive behavior change happens when motivation is activated, not shame-based tactics that can amplify resistance and backfire.

2. Change is nourished by empathy.

Best-selling Author Pema Chödrön advocates for a “just like me” approach, meaning we realize that we all have ugly, problematic moments. While it can be easy to judge or point fingers when we’re watching someone else’s mishaps, it’s important to try and understand why someone might be behaving the way they are (hint: we’re wired to self-protect and are products of our environments). Empathy, the ability to see things from another perspective, can help us appreciate the human struggle, rather than take a self-righteous position.

3. Change moves forward when we understand the origins of problematic behaviors.

There is always a reason for behavior. Rooted in a variety of biopsychosocial factors, behavior is complex. Untrained, we are prone to act out, as creatures who have primitive instincts and are highly influenced by social constructs. The skills of emotional regulation and human regard can be learned, but we need to be properly taught and supported through our refinement process.

Psychologist Dr. Ross Greene, whose work primarily focuses on childhood and adolescent development, emphasizes that problematic behavior is a condition of unresolved problems and lagging skills. This framing can assist us in labeling struggles as character flaws or moral failings, moving us in a direction of building skills that help us cope and behave better.

4. Change happens through conscious community.

Unlearning problematic behavior doesn’t just happen magically, but within relationships that help us to strive for improvement and conscious citizenry. Accountability is a major tenet of change—it doesn’t let someone off the hook when behavior is undesirable, rather it provides the right tools, structures, and opportunities for choices that demonstrate determination to take responsibility for behavior.

5. Change happens through exposure to a wide range of new experiences, lenses, and perspectives.

If we choose insularity, staying with the bounds of what we’ve always known, we run the risk of stagnation and continued regression rather than realizing our potential to see and do better. Remaining in the same environments with the same routines and same people is a surefire way to block the extraordinary capacity of our species to heal and expand our repertoire of understanding of ourselves and the world. As neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky points out “the brain can change dramatically over time in response to experience.”

6. Change happens through “supervised skill practice.”

This involves being part of relationships and communities that offer positive reinforcement for what we’re doing well, and support when we need accountability to redirect unwanted behaviors. Change rarely happens in isolation—we need each other to spur it on in ways that help us recognize our incredible potential for progress.

Humans are a complicated species. No one theory of behavior can explain us fully, nor is there a magic wand to improve behavior in one fell swoop. Still, we can leverage the discoveries of modern brain science to get to a better place that unequivocally holds accountability, strives for conscious citizenry, and provides incentives for change.


Lee, K. (2018). Mentalligence: A New Psychology of Thinking: Learn what it takes to be more agile, mindful, and connected in today’s world. Deerfield Beach, FL: HCI Communications.

Fogg, B. J. (2020). Tiny habits: the small changes that change everything. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Sapolsky, Robert M. (2017). Behave: The Biology of Humans At Our Best and Worst. New York, New York: Penguin Press.

Chödrön, Pema (2020) Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala.



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