An introduction to SWITCH: how to change things when change is hard

By Liz

Behavioural change theory often intersects with our work in digital marketing. We want to compel users towards a certain journey through a website: to fill in a form, to make a donation, or to engage with a social media post. SWITCH by Chip Heath and Dan Heath is my go-to read about how you can lead and encourage changes in human behavior, both in yourself and in others, by focusing on the three forces that influence it.

While the book dives deep and provides plenty of exploration into behavioural change, I focused just on the three factors that influence change for my skills share.

In their quintessentially no-nonsense approach, the Heath brothers make it clear that knowledge does not change behaviour. As they point out, “we have all encountered crazy shrinks, obese doctors and divorced marriage counsellors.” So what does change behaviour? The book illustrates three factors working together in one image: the elephant, the rider, and the path.


The rider is our rational brain. This part of us is so good at looking at all angles of a situation but overthinking can often hinder any change in behaviour. To see any change, our suggested shift in behaviour needs to make sense to the subject.


The elephant is our motivation. It cares little for logical arguments – it’s a stubborn, emotional creature, but once you get it moving, it can carry you a long way. A grudge that you still hold but can’t remember why is a great example of the endurance of the elephant.

Both positive and negative emotions can get the elephant to move. Negative emotions work better with obvious problems, as shock and outrage give us a sense of urgency. If the problem is more complex and there’s no clear solution, focussing on positive emotions can help build an association with a positive outcome.


Research shows that human behavior is very fluid, and it often depends on the situation a person finds themselves in. The easier it is, the more likely that your proposed change will be followed. Wherever possible, design your environment to be a pleasant, downhill stroll for your subject’s rider (mind) and elephant (heart).

How to wield these factors to change behaviour

To change behaviour successfully, you need to appeal to all three factors in the right way. Direct the rider by focussing on one specific, critical aspect of the change, so the rider doesn’t have to choose between a number of options. Get the elephant moving with a powerful emotion. Make the path of change the easiest path to follow.