In the episode “Slap Bet” on the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Barney Stinson loses a bet. As implied by the name, the winner of the slap bet gets to slap the loser across the face. Barney is given a choice. He can take ten slaps immediately or five random slaps sometime in the future. Barney’s friend Ted urges him to take the ten immediate slaps. He thinks that Barney would be better off getting it over rather than living with the constant fear of being slapped. Barney chooses the five slaps. Who made the right call? Barney or Ted? From the way that many organizations handle change management, it would seem that Barney reflects conventional wisdom. We often ease people into change believing that it is easier for them to adjust. Yet, research shows that perhaps Ted is on to something. Given that change management is an attempt to help people through the pain of a change, this research is worth considering.
In a recent HBR article, Giles Story explains that the anticipation of pain may actually be worse than the pain itself. In Dr. Story’s experiment, participants were given the choice of receiving an immediate strong shock (sensation of an insect sting) or a more mild shock (tingling sensation) after a waiting period. 70% of the participants opted for the more immediate shock, even though it was more painful. Dr.Story concludes
“We infer from this that dread – the anticipation of negative outcomes – is a powerful force . . . And we think these findings show that dread is so painful that people will pay a significant price, in the form of more physical pain, to avoid it.”
Giles Story isn’t the only one whose research suggests that people might be better off getting the pain out of the way early. Researchers Leif Nelson and Tom Meyvis found a similar result in their research on adaptability. They subjected three groups of participants to loud, unpleasant (and uncomfortable) recordings of vacuum cleaners.
· Group 1: five seconds of noise
· Group 2: forty seconds of noise
· Group 3: forty seconds of noise, followed by a few seconds of silence and then five more seconds of noise
They then asked the participants to rate their level of annoyance during the last five seconds of their experience. The people who only listened for five seconds had the highest level of annoyance. The people who listened for forty seconds were least annoyed. Those who had a break and then returned to the sound had a level of annoyance similar to those who only listened for five seconds. Breaking up the experience made it worse, not better.
Then, they ran a second experiment to understand people’s beliefs about how they respond to pain. They asked a different group to predict how they thought they would feel in the three situations with the vacuum noises (they did not actually run the experiment with them). Consistent with conventional wisdom, the people predicted that they would be the most uncomfortable with the longer experience.
Nelson and Meyvis concluded:
“These results indicate that though people want to break up negative experiences, this is not always a wise decision. Whereas listening to the noise for an extended period made the noise less aversive, inserting a break made the noise just as aversive as it had been initially, suggesting that the break disrupted the adaptation process.”
Breaking up negative experiences can actually increase their negative impact. This tends to counter the common assumption that it’s best to dole out the pain in small doses.
These experiments dealt with physical pain. However, experiments have shown that social pain (the feeling of being left out) registers in the same part of the brain as physical pain. Therefore, it's easy to see how we'd react similarly during times of change or duress. I’ve often found that the anticipation of a difficult conversation or unappealing event is often worse than the actual conversation or event.
Conventional wisdom tells us that it’s best to ease people into change. However, research suggests that people are much more nimble and adaptable than we (or they) may think. Consider that when planning you next change program. Sometimes it’s easier to absorb a quick slap in the face than it is to wait for a softer hit later on.
 Berinato, Scott, and Giles Story. "Anticipating change is worse than feeling it." Harvard Business Review Mar. 2014: 30-31. Print.
 Nelson, Leif D. and Meyvis, Tom, Interrupted Consumption: Disrupting Adaptation to Hedonic Experiences (December 2008). Journal of Marketing Research, Vol. 45, pp. 654-664, December 2008. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=946210
 Van Hecke, Madeleine L., Lisa P. Callahan, Brad Kolar, and Ken A. Paller. "Chapter 6: Ouch! You Left Me Out." The brain advantage: become a more effective business leader using the latest brain research. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2010. 67-76. Print.