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Why do people resist change?

OSU Research Matters is a bi-weekly look inside the work of Oklahoma State University faculty, staff and students.

Whether we like it or not, things in life are going to change. Oklahoma State professor Nikos Dimotakis has even made a career out of studying change and how we adapt.

In this episode, Meghan Robinson speaks with Dimotakis, who focuses on how individuals perceive and react to their environment — specifically in the workplace.


Nikos Dimotakis
Oklahoma State University
Nikos Dimotakis

DIMOTAKIS: I was mostly interested in motivation, and I was mostly interested to see how people essentially resist change was my big thing. I wanted to really understand why people don't want things to be different than they are at this point. But then that leads to a question - is that true? Do people not want things to change? Which, I think they don't to a large extent, but also, why don't they? So, thinking of that, you start getting up against this literature that talk about how people immediately respond to something, change in particular being one of those things where, you know, since Machiavelli, we've known that change has all of the costs up front and all of the benefits later.

ROBINSON: Whether we like it or not, things in life are going to change. In fact, Oklahoma State professor Dimotakis has centered his research around change in the workplace. Lucky for us, he’s learned we are excellent at adapting.

DIMOTAKIS: Among other things, humans are remarkably good at getting used to things. Like, nobody thinks that smartphones are impressive anymore, which is insane, right? Like we have this thing that can go up to space and bring us all this information in our pockets, which was something that like 20 years ago wasn't even an option at home for a lot of people, right? And now, it's ubiquitous.

So, we get used to things and as we get used to things, we stop responding to things, which makes sense. Because even though poetically it sounds good, being in awe of every sunset and every dawn would basically not leave you with a lot of time, right? If we were impressed by every squirrel we saw every day, even though they're adorable, if we were impressed by the color of the sky, we wouldn't be able to actually do anything. So, we get very used to these circumstances.

There was a very old study that found -- it compared lottery winners to people that had been in pretty gruesome accidents. And they found that both sets of people a few months later essentially were back to their baseline levels of happiness so that we call the “hedonic treadmill” from the Greek word for pleasure and treadmill because you keep going and you actually, you're running, and you're running, but you're staying in the same place.

ROBINSON: Dimotakis estimates it take about three months for people to acclimate to change.

DIMOTAKIS: I know some people will say that it takes 21 days for a habit to form. Maybe. I think more important is to kind of think about what we're talking about and what period we're talking about. So, time periods are interesting because we live in very different timeframes, and I would say that anything we have a name for is important.

So, days are important. Weeks are important. Months are important. Years are important. Fortnite probably used to be important, less important these days. So, we tend to think in terms of, I had a good day, I had a good week, I had a good month, I had a good year. If we were looking at how long adaptation takes, it's probably gonna be one of those periods, and I'm guessing it's also gonna differ quite a bit based on what event we're talking about. Common hassles and common pleasures you’re gonna get use to pretty fast. Uncommon things might take you a little bit more time to get used to. And I would say we probably, unfortunately, can much faster adapt to positive things than to negative things.

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Meghan Robinson is the host of OSU Research Matters and the Multimedia Reporter/ Producer for Inside OSU, the official streaming platform of Oklahoma State University.
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