If you look at all the inventions and discoveries that have improved our lives it is is hard to imagine why there is resistance to innovation. Many historical innovations changed our lives for the better, like the discovery of penicillin which prevented numerous unnecessary deaths. Or street lighting improved the safety of citizens during nocturnal hours and the introduction of the telephone which brought people closer together who were separated by physical distance. But despite the benefits we still object to all that is new. By now we should have learned that often change is for the better, and that we have far more to gain than to lose if we embrace change.
Why then is there still resistance to innovation?
One of the hardest things to do in the process of innovation is to overcome resistance. Today we see examples of how resistance manifests itself in the debate over the self-driving car or public opinion about in vitro meat. Resistance is not a contemporary phenomenon. Heated debate and fierce objections are quite common when a new idea or technology is introduced. Almost all the great innovations were ridiculed or rebuffed by the majority at first. And the scorn is not just reserved for technological inventions like the steam engine. Discoveries in the field of physics like the discovery of dark matter are equally shunned as socio-economic innovations like egalitarianism or universal suffrage.
What is the reason for resistance to innovation?
It doesn’t matter if the innovation will help to overcome major societal challenges. Whatever we gain from adopting the new technology or idea, an innovation always meets with resistance.
In the debate over driverless cars the main arguments are ‘having no control in a life-or-death situation’ or ‘the inability to control artificial intelligence’. Since you’re not the driver anymore but a passenger, you are completely at the mercy of the machine. The arguments are driven by the fear of loosing our autonomy which might cause physical harm. In case of the driverless car you could argue that the perceived risk is based on valid reasons because the consequences of a mistake are irreversible. Hence it is understandable that the innovation meets with resistance.
Now let’s look at another example. When the first waterproof umbrella was introduced, the man using it was verbally abused and pelted with trash when he walked down the street. In this case you can’t argue that the umbrella posed a threat to society or could be harmful. because what harm could an umbrella do? It wasn’t equipped with artificial intelligence, nor dit it open or close of its own accord. There seems to be no valid reasons to object to an umbrella.
But in a sense the umbrella did pose a threat to society. The man who introduced the umbrella defied commonly held beliefs, because until then only women used umbrellas -or parasols- to shade them from the sun. A man using an umbrella was not done and therefor a preposterous act. He might not have realised it but his act questioned whether or not those commonly held beliefs that had shaped society were valid.
How our brain judges innovation
Although we set great store by our intelligence, these beliefs are anything but rational. When people object to an innovation they are subject to the same mechanism as when they make a decision. To understand how we make decisions we need to take a closer look at our brain.
Our brain consists of 3 layers, the Old Brain or Reptilian Brain, the Limbic brain or Mammal brain and the Neocortex or Human Brain. The old brain was the first to evolve, before we became sentient beings. The Reptilian Brain controls primary body functions like breathing and controls primal behaviours geared toward survival. When we became more sentient the next part of the brain evolved: the Limbic brain. This part of our brain deals with our needs and emotions. This is the part of the brain where value judgements are made and memories are stored. The last part to evolve is what we call the Human brain. With this part of our brain we perceive, think, imagine and create.
Decisions are for 95% made in the oldest two parts of our brain. Scientific studies show that in the decision making process the older brains have already made a decision a split second before we rationalise the idea with our Human Brain. The same happens when we are confronted with a new idea. Our inner lizard and monkey decide how we should respond to the innovation based on our instincts, our gut feelings, fears and needs. After that our brain starts to rationalise this decision. “I don’t like it because…it is dangerous!” or “…because…it will cause unemployment!
This delayed argumentation is credited with far too much weight than is appropriate. We think we can use reasoning to overcome resistance. In response to the verbal objections we start a discussion, hoping to prove the critics wrong with rational arguments. But it won’t make any difference. The inner lizard has already made up its mind.
Where does the fear for innovation come from?
According to Professor Calestous Juma in his book: Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies:
“It is the uncertainty associated with change—especially the fear of losing what we value—that leads to resistance to change.”
He argues that it’s not about fear for something new, but the fear of loss, like the fear of losing one’s identity, or one’s sense of purpose. This is the Mammal Brain talking. But it goes deeper than the fear of losing something that we value. Change rattles the fundaments of our existence. It undermines the carefully constructed status quo that ensures you have enough to eat and drink, a safe environment to rest and sleep, and a future for yourself and your nearest and dearest. In other words, it’s the inner lizard going in full survival mode, calling the shots.
How we react to change is part of our survival mechanism. If we have created a status quo that ensures our survival, why on earth should we rock the boat with unnecessary risks?
Because that is exactly what innovation is, taking risks. And we only take risks because there is no other option.
We can be quite inventive when our survival is threatened. That is when the Human Brain kicks in. It tries to make sense of the instinctive reaction of the Lizard brain and and uses cognition, imagination and logic to avert the threat. Therefor we display quite a lot of creativity when we try to eliminate the treaty and use anything from slander and misinformation to sabotage and demonisation. Anything to stop the new idea from disrupting the status quo. A well known example is how Thomas Edison tried to thwart the use of Alternating Current (AC) which was introduced by his competitors George Westinghouse and Nicola Tesla.
Edison was in favour of Direct Current (DC), the commonly used form of electricity which he used to power his biggest invention, the lightbulb. To prove the dangers of AC Edison electrocuted or ‘Westinghoused’ several animals and even had a hand in the development of the electric chair.
How to overcome resistance to innovation
In spite of what is often assumed, providing evidence or arguments will eliminate resistance to innovation. But unfortunately that is not the way it works. We cannot remove resistance with reasoning or arguments because language evolved with the Human brain, which is rarely used for decision making. In stead we should be addressing the underlying needs and survival mechanisms. Values our inner monkey could relate to or primal needs our inner lizard understands. We first have to gain the trust of the Mammal brain and then give it input with an emotional value in order to convince the Reptilian brain.
Think about what the innovation has to offer the inner lizard and the inner monkey. The offering should have an emotional value which corresponds with our dreams and wishes and our unspoken needs and hopes.When an innovation strikes an emotional chord, it has a higher success rate.
Take for instance innovations that appeal to a sense of freedom, like the car. Or innovations that give us a sense of security like surveillance.
Show what the innovation is about. Let the public experience it, so they can establish an emotional connection with your idea in the Mammal Brain. Create a non-threatening situation that makes the inner monkey feel good and in which the inner lizard feels safe. Respect their opinions and try to understand where the resistance comes from. Embrace the resistance.
No matter what the idea is, there will always be resistance to innovation. It’s how you deal with the resistance that makes all the difference.