Switch — Book Summary

Switch Book Cover

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

by Chip Heath

Published: 2010 | 305 pages
Rating Amazon:  stars rating 4.6 
Rating by reviewer:  stars rating 4.6 
Author of the article: Shahjahan Rahman
Date of the summary: Dec 12, 2020

Just as change is inevitable, so is resistance to change. The book Switch will teach you how to confront your resistance to change.

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French philosopher Henry Bergson said, "To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly." The only thing certain in our lives is change. Just as change is inevitable, so is resistance to change. Switch, by Chip & Dan Heath, tells us how to confront our resistance to change.

Interesting quotes from the book

Big problems are rarely solved with commensurately big solutions. Instead, they are most often solved by a sequence of small solutions.

— Chip Heath, Switch

To the Rider, the 'analyzing' phase is often more satisfying than the 'doing' phase, and that's dangerous for your switch.

— Chip Heath, Switch

The more instinctive a behavior becomes, the less self-control from the Rider it requires, and thus the more sustainable it becomes.

— Chip Heath, Switch

Summary of the book Switch

A key aspect of this book is its use of research on behavioral psychology how people change their behavior without knowing that they are being changed. One study shows that people with large buckets of popcorn ate 53 percent more than people with medium size. Examples like this provide concrete visualization of the abstract concepts discussed.

The first step toward change is to be aware of potential surprises. To be aware, you should become familiar with the three surprises about change that the authors consider common:

  1. What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.
  2. What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.
  3. What looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity.

The writers illustrate a behavioral psychology model using the analogy of a Rider and his/her Elephant, originally used by psychologist Jonathan Hadith. The basis of this analogy is that our brains have two components: the first is emotional and the second is rational.

In the analogy, the Rider represents the rational component of our brain which dictates analysis of situations and deliberate planning of future steps. The Elephant represents our emotional component. Lastly, the Path represents our surroundings.

If we truly want to change anything–to have a perfect switch – we need to approach all three at the same time. If we motivate the Elephant but do not give direction to the Rider or vice versa, we will get no results. The attempt to switch will fail. In short, to make a switch, we need to:

  • Direct the Rider: Another name for the rational component of our nature is a conscious system because it can deliberately plan the future if given a clear vision of the destination. At this level, we often mistake a lack of clarity of vision as resistance.
  • Motivate the Elephant: This Elephant, our emotional component, frequently gets out of our control. It is sensitive to force and therefore we should not compel it, but rather we should motivate it. If we compel our emotional responses, we eventually become exhausted.
  • Shape the Path: The surrounding environment is the Path. If the surrounding is in our favor, the switch becomes easier. Sometimes, however, there are impediments in our Path. Often these impediments are not people problems but situation problems. In that case, we need to shape our Path accordingly.

Let us go deeper into the discussion and take a microscopic view.

1. Direct the Rider

The Rider can think logically, she/he can plan for the future. The only thing needed is a clear destination. If not provided with a clear destination, he/she may face analysis paralysis. The Rider is always focused on problems. She/he usually does not look at the success achieved but focuses instead on the failure. By nature, the Rider is more problem- than solution-oriented. Negativity is embedded within us.

That is why the Rider should be provided with clear instructions about where to go, how to go, and what to achieve.

There are three things you can do to properly direct the Rider:

  1. Find the bright spots.
  2. Script the critical moves.
  3. Point to the destination.

1.1 Find the bright spots

Throughout our lives, there are times when everything seems to go according to plan. We need to analyze those times. These good times can provide clarity about what steps to take in order to make everything run smoothly again. We need to ask ourselves what approaches have worked in challenging situations. Once we have identified these approaches, we can focus on implementing them more often.

Two questions will help analyze those silver linings:

  1. "Suppose that you go to bed tonight and sleep well. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, while you are sleeping, a miracle happens and all the troubles that brought you here are resolved. When you wake up in the morning, what is the first small sign you'd see that would make you think, ‘Well, something must have happened–the problem is gone.'?"
  2. "When was the last time you saw a little bit of the miracle, even just for a short time?"

These questions can help you find the bright spots. While searching for it, replay those times carefully. When you discover what created the bright spot, do more of it.

Another significant insight is that when searching for a solution, we should not search for one that is commensurate to the problem. Rather, we should search for a set of small solutions that will take longer but be more attainable.

In summary, when you face a problem, replay the past, find out the bright spots, do more of what made those bright spots happen, and picture what to achieve – don't worry about the middle path.

1.2 Script the critical moves

With change comes uncertainty. Suddenly the Rider will find many possible Paths to take. These options will not give freedom but exhaustion. While going through change, script the critical moves. The critical moves need to be concrete and clear. Too many options create fatigue.

If not provided with a clear destination, the Rider will take the default path when facing too many choices. The switch will never happen. To avoid this, script what moves to take. These are often behavioral moves. Only a map with a clear destination and vision of the Path can help the Rider make the switch.

2. Motivate the Elephant

When faced with change, humans follow a pattern. It is not an analyze-think-change pattern but a see-feel-change pattern. Until something hits your emotional ground, you will not think things need to be changed. This is where the Elephant comes in as a symbol of our emotional component. This component cannot be forced to switch – it will resist. But if we motivate it, it becomes easier to change.

There are three things you can do to motivate the Elephant:

2.1 Find the feelings

The Elephant does not possess insight. It is driven by feelings. But which feeling–positive or negative–should we use to make the switch? It is a matter of insight. When the switch should be done immediately, it is better to create a crisis environment. Crises help us to focus and to implement quick action. This is a form of negative emotion. In contrast, positive emotion helps us to solve bigger, more ambiguous problems. It tells us to broaden our minds, to learn new skills, to be optimistic. Positive emotion does not only help in the switch but also encourages us to keep growing. Let the elephant believe in itself. Let it believe that it is a conqueror, and it will be much more able to make the switch.

2.2 Shrink the change

It can be tough to get the Elephant moving. When presented with a big change, the Elephant tends to resist. Because of this, it is better to start with a small change. The Elephant is success-hungry – it wants to succeed instantly with little to no impediment. It is therefore best to celebrate every small win. When the Elephant feels hope, it will not be as easily derailed. Celebrating small wins will make the advances visible and will generate hope within.

2.3 Grow people around you

People rely on two basic models of decision-making:

  • Consequences model: The consequences model assumes that when you make a decision, you choose a path that will maximize your satisfaction based on costs and benefits. This model is not appealing to the Elephant, but it is appealing to the Rider.
  • Identity model: In the identity model, you ask yourself three questions when you are making decisions: Who am I? What kind of a situation is this? What would someone like me do in this situation? The Elephant follows this model.

To make the switch, you need to cultivate or inculcate the identity that will lead to positive change. It is proven that people can grow a new identity easily, but it is much harder to live with that new identity. This may cause temporary failure. That is why we need to tell the Elephant, as Rosabeth Moss Kanter says, "Everything can look like a failure in the middle." We need to

prepare the Elephant for temporary failure. Only inspiration can help us reach our final destination.

3. Shape the Path

Often, the situation we are in drives our behavior in a particular way. As the writers explain in the first part of the book, what looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. Altering the situation makes the switch a lot easier. The Rider is there to direct while the Elephant takes the walk. Reducing friction is the best way to help them reach their destination.

Three ways you can shape the Path

  • Tweak the environment – Changing situations will make the right behaviors easier while making the wrong behavior harder. As the authors write, "By tweaking the environment, you basically outsmart yourself." Planning is crucial in this stage. To tweak the situation in our favor, planning must occur at three points of time: pre-event, event, post-event.
  • Build habits – Habits drive our behaviors. By building new habits we will be able to set a new course for our behavioral pattern.

Installing action triggers as a reminder encourages us to implement certain plans that are needed for the change of habit.

A checklist will help to make our behavior more consistent and help us to avoid blind spots in a complex situation. Set the action trigger and then maintain the checklist to keep you on track.

  • Rally the Herd – We take our cues of acceptance or rejection from the people around us. The Elephant is driven by the herd. To bring change, the leader needs to rally the herd or the Elephant will follow the herd.
  • To rally the herd, the leader needs to organize and support the reformers in the clash between reformers and the rest. The leader should also add to their herd, build good habits within the herd, and publicize the herd's good deeds.

4.Keep the switch going:

As the writers reiterate, you should not force the Elephant. The Elephant does not resist change, it resists being changed forcibly. That is why we need to implement the change by influencing indirectly. Rewarding small wins and praising good actions are good ways of influencing indirectly. These will reinforce the positive behavior of the herd and keep the switch going.

Key lessons of the book

Lesson 1:

Our emotions can overwhelm our rational thought. That means that the Elephant can overpower the Rider and the Rider will start overthinking. This may result in a total blunder.

Lesson 2:

What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem. To get people to alter their behavior, we need to understand the situation properly. We can then shape the situation so that the change takes place smoothly.

Lesson 3:

What looks like laziness is often exhaustion. This happens when you do the work forcibly against your will. Self-controlis limited.

Lesson 4:

Make sure your goals are attainable and specific. Without a specific course towards the destination, you may end up traveling in a circle.

Lesson 5:

The gates of large goals are lined with small accomplishments. By taking small steps toward the goal and celebrating every win you canachieve the goal more easily.

Lesson 6:

"Any new quest, even one that is ultimately successful, is going to involve failure." We need to embrace this human inevitability and continue toward the goal with renewed energy.

Review of the book Switch

Although we experience changes frequently, every change is full of uncertainties and surprises. That is why learning the common patterns of change is so important. This book gave me greater insight into these common patterns. I experienced a journey of unveiling uncertainties while reading. Why should you read the book? My answer is why not? Read this before you start a switch, as an individual or as the leader of the herd, and you can prevent yourself from becoming paralyzed by uncertainty. Happy reading.


This book is engaging and enlightening, not only in its writing style but also in its presentation of relevant behavioral research. I enjoyed how the writers describe the challenges we face when trying to make a change. Now I hope I will be able to DESIGN my switch.

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