Don’t worry, it will only hurt a little

Written by Jennifer Mahony

A commercial came out a few years ago introducing payWave, what was then a new, innovative way to pay for things with just a quick tap of your debit or credit card.  Set in a cafe filled with morning commuters getting their coffee fix, the commercial showed an orderly assembly line of people ordering coffee, receiving coffee, and paying for coffee with payWave, everyone moving in complete, effortless synch.  Until one person pulls out actual money and the assembly lines comes to a crashing halt, ostensibly ruining everyone’s morning routine.   

While the point of the commercial was to show how much easier life is with unencumbered ways to pay for things (and conversely, how disruptive it is to search your pockets for notes and coins), it also tapped into our limbic need for certainty of predictive outcome.  For as much as we praise disruption and innovation and “newness”1, we humans crave certainty even more.  What is the greatest disrupter of certainty?  Change. 

The mention of change strikes fear in many a heart.  It has generated thousands of books on how to do it right.  And has sparked an entire industry geared towards growth and emotional evolution.  To our brains, however, change is painful, is dangerous and (for the more creative among us) is a threat of apocalyptic proportions.

Therefore, it is safe to say that we humans don’t like change.  Even when we’re unhappy.  Given the choice, our brains would prefer unhappiness over uncertainty.  We may be unhappy, but we understand it and that makes it comfortable.  Better the devil we know than the one we don’t. 

Why is change such a difficult prospect for us?  There are two key reasons.  First, our brains are basically massive prediction machines.  They operate best when things go as expected.  We consciously focus on about 40 environmental factors at any one time, while there may be as many as 2 million going on the background.  Our brains search and scan for familiar patterns and nudge us in the direction of what we already know.  Interrupting that pattern of predictability registers as a threat or a mistake. 

We are also programmed to believe that the longer something has been established, the better it is.  A round up of social science experiments have proven this point.  Whether it’s a tree, a chocolate shop, or a painting, the older it is, the more established it is, the higher we rate it.

But change happens every day.  We even seek it.  How can we both simultaneously fear change and embrace it?  In the hierarchy of things our brains don’t like, the fear of loss ranks higher than the fear of uncertainty.  We embrace change when the fear of uncertainty is less than the fear of loss.  In other words, we are comfortable with change when uncertainty is more desirable than losing. 

Consider the End-of-Day effect, which answers the question about why bettors at a horse track take longshot odds on the last races when they don’t at the beginning of the day.  If a bettor has consistently lost each race, the bettor is more likely to make the big bet on the last race, even though that bet is vastly more uncertain.  Our great big brain of predictions will see that there is no longer a viable reward of suitable size staying where we are (conservative bets) so instead, we prioritise uncertainty (potentially big win) over the risk of predictable loss. 

Eventually, we will individually get to the point where the uncertainty of change is better than the predictability of loss.  That works when the change is only affecting one person.  What makes change infinitely more complicated is that we each have a different “letting go” point, and we each have different levels of resilience and abilities to adapt to change and uncertainty.  Think about organisational change or even a romantic relationship.  If everyone in the organisation, or both people, aren’t in the same place at the same time in terms of choosing uncertainty over loss, change becomes even more painful. 

Change may be hard, but it’s not impossible.  Those who adapt to change well—particularly when the change is forced rather than chosen—are those who find what they can influence and control.  In other words, those who adapt create predictability.  Ways to do this include:

  • Finding one part of a changing situation that we have control or influence over.  It doesn’t matter what size it is, what matters is that it something we can recognise and can take ownership of.
  • Speaking of ownership, if we can hold ourselves responsible for improving a situation at a personal level—regardless of the cause—we are more likely to handle change positively.  Otherwise, we risk lapsing into victimisation and helplessness. 
  • We put setbacks in their place and we don’t let them undermine what is working in the rest of our lives. 
  • We have hope.  We can see beyond difficulties and recognise that there is an end and that we will come out of it okay. 
  • Change is difficult. Change can hurt. If we’re able, we can change our perspective and create a sense of predictability and permanence, making change – real change – possible. 

1 A recent study has concluded that this paradox is a result of computational errors in the brain. Creativity, the study argues, is not the result of rational choice, but rather, mistakes. 

About the author

As an experienced litigator, mediator and arbitrator, Jennifer understands the importance of relationships. She is passionate about empowering people with the skills and tools they need to resolve conflict, and to rebuild relationships.

Jennifer is Resolution Practitioner with Fair Way. Workplace conflict has been a focus of Jennifer’s throughout her career, right from law school through to present. Her experience includes managing workplace investigations, developing tailored complaints processes, building conflict resiliency and intervening as a neutral party to help resolve workplace conflict.

If you would like to get in touch with Jennifer, please contact