G.I. Joe and the Battle of Transformational Change


We talk to corporations, government offices and NGOs all the time that face challenges to growing their businesses, realizing goals for sustainable practices and tackling issues like diversity.  They all acknowledge or at least manifest a desire to commit to programs that will help them achieve transformational change.

“Change is hard”.  No matter how urgent the objective, the inevitable inertia of habits (even the obvious bad ones) has stood in the way of many a change management initiative.

The recognition of behavioral science as a means to understand the motivations and barriers to how consumers and employee stakeholders make desired choices has been greatly helped by the many thought leaders who have written books (especially those like Kahneman and Thaler who have received Nobel prizes in economics for their work).

The list is long in terms of resources available to organizations who want to tackle behavioral change.  There are lists of articles, courses, conferences and yes, even books (our own founder Eric Singler has written three!).  And companies earnestly embrace the literature that explains the principles of the science, even with concrete examples of its application.

There is just one thing:  The G.I. Joe Fallacy.

Yale University Professors Laurie Santos and Tamar Gendler explained this beautifully in an article entitled “Knowing is Half the Battle”.

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For those unfamiliar:  G.I. Joe was a macho soldier, made famous by Marvel comics who was the model for a child’s action figure and appeared as a TV character in the 1980s. Every episode of the TV series ended with G.I. Joe recapping the moral platitudes of the show with the statement:  “Now you know. And knowing is half the battle.” repudiandae sint et molestiae non recusandae

Actually behavioral science tells us the cognitive bias of “knowing” is rarely half or even a fraction of the driver to change behavior.  And even when we “know”, we humans often fail to make the changes that the known truths would rationally compel us to act on.

This applies to making healthy eating decisions, embracing sustainable energy use, making sound economic choices and (drum roll please) activating programs that create transformational change within the management of a corporation.

We often hear from prospective clients that they have ordered the most popular books on behavioral science for their management teams and they are READY to tackle their 100 day plans for transformational change.  They KNOW this.  They have GOT this.

We say “Great . . . BUT be prepared that KNOWING is NEVER enough.”

A well-known example to make the effect of the fallacy more accessible is for you to think back to the last time you wanted to lose weight.  If you’re anything like me, you invested time and effort into immersing yourself in the latest diet books, articles and videos.  So now I “KNOW” I have to do it, and “HOW” I can do it. But for me, the battle was nowhere near won.

It was only until I applied behavioral principles and embedded small nudges within my environment that I started seeing a change in my behavior.  They ranged from when and how I prepared my meals to visible check-lists, as well as the use of apps to nudge wellness reminders and track and reward my progress.

Like all consultants across the behavioral science landscape who have their proprietary practices, we will argue that we have seen ours work dramatically in many sectors, regions and disciplines.  So for sure we would encourage clients seeking to achieve transformational change to partner with us. We have tested and validated that our “nudge” principles work.

But most importantly we would encourage any organization contemplating a behavioral change program not to fall prey to the G.I. Joe Fallacy and try to go it alone.  Knowing is not half the battle, and overcoming cognitive biases can be deadly. But experiencing true behavior change with the help of a trusted partner can be the best path to achieving sustainable desired transformational impact, for your company, your stakeholders, your consumers, and ultimately to create a better world.