Fear is the most powerful motivation of personal change, but the change remains only as long as the fear does.
We are all very familiar with fear and how it can cause any one to fall in line “or else”. We invoke it as parents when wanting to get our kids to do or stop doing something immediately, we invoke it in employees or peers for similar reasons by using threats, and we produce it in partners, especially when threatening to leave. Law enforcement in our society is based on threats of punishment and fear, as is discipline in schools. And, almost always we get the results we want, at least in the short run.
So, what’s the problem? The problem is that fear is always in response to external threats of punishment and as soon as the threat disappears, so does the fear, and we tend to return to the ways we were before the fear was produced. This is elementary human behavior, as well as all animal behavior: we always return to the most powerfully learned habits of behaving when in neuteral situations. Although many of our social systems try to make changes in the behaviors of people by interventions with threat and fear and then “teaching” them more acceptable ways of acting, those lessons do not stick as long as fear remains the primary motivator because the individuals put all their energies into learning how to “play the game” rather than accepting and internalizing the new information.
So, what works? Invoking fear with threats is a useful tool to stop a person from whatever they are doing and get their attention. Once that’s done, the only way to get that person to accept and internalize new ways of thinking and acting is to have them see you as someone genuinely interested in their best interest and not threatening, and to see the new information being presented to them as truly beneficial to enhancing their lives realistically. And, if that can be accomplished, in order to complete the change in another individual, he or she would have to be given the opportunity to try and retry the new behaviors, with an understanding that they may have old behavior relapses at times, but would be given encouragement, support, and reasonable rewards for returning to and continuing to practice and develop the new behaviors until they become the most prominent habitual styles of acting.
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