This is part four in our series exploring the science of our discomfort with change. Read part one, about the science of uncertainty. Part two explores how the fear of loss holds us back, and part three takes a look at how our attachment to habit and the status quo makes change feel hard.
In the first post of this series, when we explored how human beings handle uncertainty, I mentioned a dream job across the country that you might, or might not, apply for. I mentioned how scary it can be to consider all the unknown outcomes of such a decision, such as where you’d live or whether the job would live up to expectations. But there’s another facet to such decisions: the impact of such a major life change on your relationships. Taking a job across the country could mean leaving family, friends, and a romantic partner behind and having to start over among strangers.
When I interviewed experts in a range of fields about how human beings make decisions, break habits, and handle things like loss and uncertainty, several of them cautioned against thinking solely in terms of the individual making the change. It’s a very American way of approaching a problem, psychiatrist Amy Banks pointed out — that “we can do anything on our own if we just try hard enough.” But, in fact, change has an impact on those around us, and humans are intensely social — perhaps more than we realize.
“Our very being is built literally to function best in healthy social connections,” said Banks, who studies the “neurobiology of relationships” at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at Wellesley College. Banks recommends that anyone moving away from his or her community have a “social plan” in place beforehand as a means of coping and staying healthy. “It undermines our physiology to be isolated,” Banks said. “Across the board, we get sicker when we’re isolated.”
Banks has a story about this. When she was 10, her family moved to a new town where, on her first day at school, she was teased by the other kids for looking like a boy. Of course, we all have stories about childhood bullying. But what’s less well-known is just why such experiences of social exclusion hurt so much that Banks can vividly recall the pain of that memory more than forty years later. Banks points to a study out of UCLA in which subjects inside a magnetic resonance imaging machine had their brains scanned while playing a computer game from which it appeared they were being gradually excluded by the other players. The rejection was a mild one, but it lit up “the same area of the brain that lights up for the distress of physical pain,” Banks explained. We are such social creatures that “the warning system for physical pain and social exclusion are one and the same.”
Changes in social status — which are often precipitated by major changes, like going back to school mid-career, marrying into a new family, or being demoted after your company is bought in a merger — matter to us because we evolved to care deeply about our place in the pecking order. Margaret King, who directs a think tank that studies how culture and human behavior affect consumer choice, told me that, as primates, “We are very, very hierarchical. It’s so natural to you that we don’t even think about it, but, for example, if you hold a focus group, within six or eight minutes, it becomes very clear who the dominant person is.”
Bucking the norm of a social group can feel risky. Friendships are often based in part on overlapping values and interests, and changing one’s interest can fray those bonds. A schoolteacher’s decision to pursue a principal track could be interpreted by her schoolteacher friends as a kind of criticism of their choices. As King puts it: “You’ve challenged their value currency.”
“If you’re doing something different than your group, what usually happens is there’s an immediate judgment — what you’re doing is right or wrong, better or worse,” Banks explained to me. That kind of public risk-taking can make the stakes seem higher. We may fear being embarrassed if things don’t work out.
Social groups influence us in other ways. We tend to measure our own behavior against others’ to determine whether we’re as successful as we should be, as happy as we should be, as “normal” as we should be. Major changes may require us to swap out the social yardstick we’ve been using. Science writer Michael Shermer, who writes about the brain, belief, and skepticism, recently felt the pressure of being an outlier when he got remarried to a younger woman and they decided to have a child. Shermer is 61 and has an adult daughter. He felt self-conscious about the decision.
“We’re a social primate species; we care very much about our reputation and what people think,” Shermer said. “First thing I did was ask around and see who else did it.” He observed that Steve Martin had a kid at 67. Jeff Goldblum, whom Shermer ran into at a jazz club, recounted becoming a dad at 62. “It just felt like, OK, I’m not that weird,” Shermer told me.
If you’re stuck in the process of deciding whether to make a change, it’s useful to explore the complexity of what might be getting in your way. You might not even realize what forces are freezing you up. Perhaps there are important social implications to making a change, like the prospect of being an outlier among friends. Perhaps the lack of a guaranteed happy ending feels overwhelming. Perhaps you’re focusing on what you’d lose rather than what you’d gain. Perhaps past experience with change has predisposed you to a pessimistic perspective on how this one will go. It’s worth examining just what’s holding you back, because only then can you be open to the possibility of a new way forward.
Libby Copeland is a journalist in New York who has written for Slate, The New Republic, The Washington Post, New York magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Glamour and more. Previously she was a staff reporter and editor for The Washington Post for over a decade.