Canadian psychologist Robert Gifford recently described seven psychological barriers that keep people from changing. Gifford’s area of interest is the environment – people don’t change their energy consumption habits even though global warming is likely to be catastrophic – but his observations apply just as well to the arts where leaders don’t change their management habits even though the industry suffers from chronic, potentially fatal, audience declines.
Here’s a brief paraphrase of what Dr. Gifford calls his “Seven Dragons of Inaction” along with some examples from the arts.
Humans simply may not be wired to anticipate future catastrophes and then change their behavior to prevent them from happening. For thousands of years we’ve dealt mostly with the here and now, and it’s only in the last few decades that we’ve been asked to gaze into the future, imagine the dire consequences of our actions and make wholesale changes in the way we live. Given the way we’ve evolved, we’re not very good at wrapping our minds around abstract future problems so we tend to drag our feet, assume that the problem is someone else’s or cling to irrational causes for optimism: “But sales were really strong for our Marvin Hamlisch tribute.”
Michael Kaiser complained recently in a Huffington Post blog that his consulting clients weren’t implementing sensible strategic plans even though they understood that inaction could have devastating consequences. It could be that when arts professionals fail to act it’s not because we’re lazy or stubborn, but because we simply don’t have the cognitive capacity to do it.
Some belief systems are so strong they blind people to reality. We all know how political ideologies can influence what people think about global warming, but there may be equally powerful ideologies preventing arts pros from understanding why change is necessary.
Long term tracking studies by the NEA have demonstrated chronic audience declines and conspicuous resistance among baby boomers to adopt the habits of their arts-consuming parents. Yet it’s still surprisingly easy to find arts professionals who’ve maintained a lifelong belief – and aren’t ashamed to profess – that people will somehow magically turn into arts patrons when their hair turns gray.
This one’s sort of like the blind leading the blind. I was working for a small museum a while back where I recommended some changes designed to appeal to new audiences. The museum decided they weren’t comfortable with the changes so they checked with other museums in the area, found that they weren’t contemplating such changes, and opted to stick with what they’d always done – even though it wasn’t working.
People who’ve made significant investments in the status quo are likely to defend those investments even if their long-term value is questionable. This helps to explain all those tuxedo-clad conductors on the covers of symphony orchestra brochures. From a new audience perspective they’re pure poison, but those photo shoots cost a fortune so there’s not a chance the pictures will be left out of the brochure.
One of the easiest ways to avoid change is to discredit the people who tell us that change is necessary. The energy industry does it by casting doubt on accepted environmental science. The arts industry does it by categorically dismissing management approaches that forecast and prepare for future threats and opportunities. “We’re the arts. We shouldn’t be expected to behave like businesses!”
Change is risky. One of the benefits of refusing to change is that you can avoid responsibility for failure. In the arts, it may be easier to succumb to seemingly inescapable external threats than to make proactive choices and have to answer for what happens. “Despite our best efforts to attract new audiences (i.e. doing the same things we’ve always done), we simply couldn’t sell enough tickets to keep the doors open.”
Positive but Inadequate Change
People do change, but the changes we’re willing to make are often not enough. Assigning a low-level staffer to tweet out show announcements is a nice gesture, but if it’s not part of a comprehensive long-term plan to participate generously, humbly and meaningfully in the broader social media conversation, it’s the equivalent putting a “Save the Environment” sticker on a Lincoln Navigator.
Gifford suggests that change is possible, but that we’ll need to understand and address these psychological resistance factors before we can bring about the change we want. I’m not sure how that would work in the arts, but at least his seven dragons give us a more focused way to think about the problem.