Should You Focus on Changing Attitudes or Changing Behaviors?

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

I don’t know if that saying is true, but I believe it because my mom said it when I was a kid. I still eat an apple nearly every day.

Some people don’t like apples. Whether it’s the taste, the texture, the smell, or the fact that they don’t like old wives’ tales, they avoid them. Some people avoid apple juice and applesauce too. And some even avoid apple pie.

I agree. Avoiding apple pie is going too far!

But if apples truly do keep the doctor away, meaning they boost a person’s health, then consuming apples is a good thing. The goal then is to get people to eat apples.

If you were charged with getting people to eat apples, would you focus on changing a person’s attitude towards apples or changing a person’s behavior?

Changing Attitudes

Let’s say you are tasked with getting 50 apple-haters at your agency to eat apples (for health reasons, of course). You decide to gather them in a room for an eight-hour training you entitle “Overcoming Your Apple Bias.”

During the class, you present positive information about apples and point out common misconceptions. You include short vignettes, putting attendees in ‘healthy choice’ scenarios where they choose between an apple and a snack cake. Some vignettes make the snack cake seem like the right choice, even though it never is. You show the audience pictures of people who have spent their lives eating snack cakes and contrast them with pictures of people who have instead eaten apples. By this time, it is obvious that apple-biases are silly and wrong. Everyone should eat an apple a day.

You close with an emotional plea: “For your health’s sake, the sake of your family, and the sake of this organization, go out there and eat some apples. We are all counting on you. The community is watching.”

The post-training evaluation surveys are glowing. Attendees comment on how engaging the training was and how they now realize apples are good and their biases are bad. You feel good because you changed peoples’ attitudes about apples. Early “wins” such as this make the traditional training method seem like the best approach.

However, you are disappointed to learn a few weeks later that your colleagues are still not eating apples. In follow-up surveys and informal conversations, it’s apparent that your colleagues now have a better attitude towards apples. They can identify a variety of apples, recite their benefits, and proclaim that everyone should eat an apple a day. Most are even wearing the “Apple A Day!” t-shirts you handed out. Yet, they still avoid eating them. It turns out they now like apples, just not the taste of apples.

Changing Behaviors

Here’s another training option. Instead of gathering 50 people in a room for a one-day training, you slice apples into small slivers and place one on each person’s desk with a note: “Eat this slice of apple first thing at lunch.” Additionally, you email them a link to a three-minute video that encourages them to eat the slice, even if they don’t like apples, and gives them a strategy: “Breathe through your mouth while quickly eating the apple slice, then chase it with a big bite of your sandwich.”

Later that week, you give out another slice of apple with a new three-minute video (and strategic application). You do the same for a couple of days the next week, and then increase it to three days the following week. In the weeks following that, you increase the dosage, adding another sliver and then another sliver and then another, while adding additional days each week.

Within three months, your coworkers are eating an apple a day. The eight-hours spent changing attitudes all in one sitting in the first example was spread out over three months to change behaviors in this second example. The amount of time dedicated to training was the same in both cases; training time was just distributed differently.

In follow-up surveys, you learn that your colleagues’ attitudes towards apples are a bit more positive, but not much. As you dig a little deeper into the survey, you see that the slight positive bump in attitude results from your colleagues’ self-report of feeling better. They now see the apple as a tool to make them healthier.

Which Method is Better?

The goal, in this example, was to get people to eat apples. Traditional training methods changed peoples’ attitudes to be more positive towards apples, but they still did not eat apples. Research shows that while traditional training in soft skills impacts attitudes, there is no good evidence that it changes long-term behaviors.

The microtraining method created a slight positive change in attitude, but more importantly, it met the training goal. People in the second group were eating apples and feeling healthier. Research shows that microtraining is the best method to change behaviors.

Which Method Will You Choose?

Instead of getting people to eat apples, what are some goals you are working towards at your agency? Better use-of-force decisions? De-escalation? Implicit bias? Professionalism? Critical thinking and decision making?

Think about one specific training goal you have for yourself or your agency. Are you more likely to reach that goal by changing your colleagues’ attitudes or changing their behaviors? Is a one-day training filled with definitions, statistics, examples, and emotional stories the best option? Or would you more quickly reach your goal by changing behavioral habits over time?

Research gives an unequivocal answer to this question: Changing behavior is the best training option.

To achieve real change, take a look at Cognitive Command Training and its microtraining methodology.

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