Paradox of the Heap

Speaking of change management, for fun I recently picked up Bad Acts and Guilty Minds: Conundrums of the Criminal Law by Leo Katz. Written in the 1980s, it is an interesting look at how laws are written in order to be both enforceable and flexible (for instance, “thou shall not kill” would be inadequate because there are times when killing should be legally justifiable).

In one section, Katz discusses how individuals can be coerced into illegal acts and under what circumstances they should be excused because of the coercion and when they shouldn’t. To do this, he backs up to talk about how people can be persuaded to change their behavior.

One of the ways he talks about depends on the paradox of the heap. Traced back to ancient Egypt, this is the idea that adding a single grain of sand to some sand will never be sufficient to transform it into a heap of sand. Therefore, no matter how much sand you add, you can never have a heap of sand. Another way this has been described is that a seven foot tall person is short because adding a quarter inch to the height of a short person is not enough to turn him or her into a tall person. Therefore, if you take a short person and keep adding quarter inches, they will never be tall, even if they get all the way to seven feet.

This may seem like pointless semantics, but this effect has some research base in the psychology literature. Katz points to a study where researchers asked homeowners if they were willing to display a very large “Drive Safely” sign in their front lawns. Very few agreed. Then they took an equivalent population and asked them if they would display a small sign with the same message. A significant percentage agreed this time. They went back to these people two weeks later and asked them if they were willing to replace their small sign with a very large one. This time, a much higher percentage agreed –much higher than the percentage of people who agreed to post a large sign without first posting a small one.

Katz relates this to prisoners of war. Their captors attempted to convert the prisoners into advocates one small step at a time, first asking them to, say, create a short list of things that aren’t perfect about the United States. It would slowly escalate, one grain of sand at a time, until the prisoners believed they had been serving on the wrong side in the war and were willing to say so.

Katz’s point is that the legal line between coercion and persuasion is blurry, but there are certainly change management lessons to learn from all of this. Instead of making a big splash with a large change in an organization, does it make more sense to escalate a series of small changes?

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