Why Emotion, Not Knowledge, Is the Catalyst for Change

Forget dry statistics, say Dan Heath and Chip Heath. Real change comes from real feelings.

At a Mother’s Day dance in 1999, Karen Gatt, 26, hit bottom. Weighing almost 300 pounds, feeling ugly and humiliated, she wanted nothing more than to slink to a corner and avoid attention. “I spent a lot of that night just looking around the room at all the other women, staring and admiring the clothes they wore, how their hair was done so nicely, and how beautiful they all looked… . They looked the way I wanted to look. They smiled the way I wanted to smile… . As I looked at their faces, something inside of me clicked. From that precise moment, I knew I had to change my life.”


She did. She lost 150 pounds, kept it off, and wrote a book about her experience called The Clothesline Diet. It’s a familiar narrative arc — a searing emotional moment that sparks a life change. One famous therapist describes this as a three-step sequence: A person sees something that makes her feel a particular way, and as a result is motivated to change. See-feel-change.

Actually, it wasn’t a therapist who said that. It was John Kotter, now a professor emeritus at the Harvard Business School. And he was talking about organizations, not people. It’s not just individuals like Karen Gatt who have emotional turning points; it’s organizations like yours. If you want change, close out of PowerPoint and start looking for the right feeling.

Curt Lansbery, CEO of North American Tool, a manufacturer of industrial cutting machinery, turned to emotion when nothing else seemed to work. Lansbery was frustrated that his employees weren’t maxing out their 401(k) investments, even though the company matched a percentage of what employees contributed. “They do not realize how much free money they are leaving on the table by not participating,” he says.

So one year, at the annual 401(k) enrollment meeting, he brought in a big bag, unzipped it, and upended it over a table. Cash started pouring out. Conversation came to a halt.

Lansbery had tabulated exactly how much money his employees had failed to claim the year prior: $9,832. Now it was sitting in front of them. He gestured at the money and said, “This is your money. It should be in your pocket. Next year, do you want it on the table or in your pocket?” There was a stunned silence.

When the 401(k) enrollment forms were distributed a little later, there was a flurry of signups, including Kelli Harris, a purchasing agent. “You always find reasons not to save money,” she says. “The money sitting in front of me made me realize I need to start doing this.” See-feel-change.


Healthy greed motivated Lansbery’s employees to save, but it was a darker emotion — disgust — that eventually sparked a change at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. As reported in SuperFreakonomics, a urologist named Leon Bender became frustrated when he took a South Seas cruise and observed that the crew was more diligent about hand-washing than the staff at his own hospital. Frequent hand-washing by doctors and nurses is one of the best ways to prevent patient infections, and studies estimate that thousands of patients die every year from preventable bacterial infections.

Bender and his colleagues tried a variety of techniques to encourage hand-washing, but the staff’s compliance with regulations was stuck around 80%. Medical standards required a minimum of 90%, and Cedars-Sinai was due for an inspection from the accrediting board. They had to do better.

One day, a committee of 20 doctors and administrators were taken by surprise when, after lunch, the hospital’s epidemiologist asked them to press their hands into an agar plate, a sterile petri dish containing a growth medium. The agar plates were sent to the lab to be cultured and photographed.

The photos revealed what wasn’t visible to the naked eye: The doctors’ hands were covered with gobs of bacteria. Imagine being one of those doctors and realizing that your own hands — the same hands that would examine a patient later in the day, not to mention the same hands that you just used to eat a turkey wrap — were harboring an army of microorganisms. It was revolting. One of the filthiest images in the portfolio was made into a screen saver for the hospital’s network of computers, ensuring that everyone on staff could share in the horror.

Suddenly, hand-hygiene compliance spiked to nearly 100% and stayed there. (Which suggests, secondarily, that the screen saver is a vastly underutilized tool for social change.)

Knowledge is rarely enough to spark change. People have to want change. Say it’s your job to lure companies to set up shop in Detroit. That’s no easy mission. Ordinarily, economic development folks are fountains of facts: School statistics. Workforce data. Infrastructure info.


What if you focused instead on creating a spark of desire? Imagine showing off a series of photos, starting with one of a huge, beautiful home with the caption: “Here’s what $250,000 will buy you in Detroit. And here’s the red-brick factory building you can buy for one-tenth of its cost in Boston. And here are the experienced workers whom you could hire for $12 an hour.” Suddenly, the business owner starts to feel a little twinge of desire. Detroit is far from perfect — but, man, think of what we could afford to do there!

This focus on feeling is unnatural in the business world, where we tend to cling to the rational and factual. But knowing something isn’t enough. The obese know they need to lose weight, employees know they need to save, and doctors know they need to wash their hands.

It takes emotion to bring knowledge to a boil.

Dan Heath and Chip Heath are the authors of the No. 1 New York Times best seller Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, as well as Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.