Psychology of Change

Social scientists suggest that a meaningful change in the behaviour of an individual, community or society occurs only when people are quite dissatisfied with their current situation; they have a clear vision of where they want to be; they know what action/efforts are needed to attain that vision; and the cost of efforts to change (the sacrifices people have to make the change) is less than the accumulated effect of the first three. In other words, the psychological effects from the dissatisfaction with present conditions, the yearning for attaining the vision and the understanding of what needs to be done should produce such a realization in people’s mind that is quite stronger than the efforts and sacrifices needed for the change.

This is expressed in the form of an equation:

Change = f(dissatisfaction, vision, action steps) > Cost (sacrifices)

What this equation underscores is that if any of these factors is missing, a meaningful or significant change will not happen. If there is no dissatisfaction, people will not care. People may be in a very bad situation, but they might not be dissatisfied because either they have become conditioned to the situation as it is or they do not know anything better. The example is of people who live in slums with the strong stench from the sewer and trash but do not even notice the odours because they have become accustomed to it. To them, the foul smell will not be an issue. People used to drinking chlorinated water do not smell or taste chlorine in the water they drink. Those brought up drinking that water assume it to be the normal condition of water. If such people are suddenly given fresh, pure untreated water, they may find it unpleasant because it is abnormal or strange for them. The people content with their current state of affairs, however miserable it is, will have no interest in any change until they are educated that there is something better and that they deserve something better. A huge segment of our Ummah is in this condition.

If dissatisfaction exists but there is no clear vision of the desirable situation, it causes depression and results in despair where people accept the current situation as their fate from which there is no escape. They will be bitter but would not be motivated to do anything to change their situation. When a significant portion of a community suffers from this kind of despair, it becomes extremely difficult to mobilize that community towards a better alternative. Many people from our Ummah feel that way.

If a vision exists, but there is no strategy and clear action plans to accomplish it, it creates frustration, confusion and desperation. Everyone tries to do whatever they think should be done. Many small organization and groups try to work for the vision in their own way. Disparate, un-coordinated and disjointed efforts naturally do not produce the desired level of results corresponding to the efforts put into it. Not seeing sufficient benefits, many activists get frustrated or burned out and thereby become defeated or defeatist. Some take desperate, extremist measures that are in fact counterproductive to the very cause they are trying to achieve. Others get disinterested and lose the motivation to do anything. Some others want to do something, but do not because they are puzzled as to what to do. Many just sit on the sidelines waiting to see some considerable success before they join in. Many others become chronic complainers, who complain about every work some one undertakes and criticize everyone who takes the initiative to do something, but they do not do anything themselves.

Similarly, when an organized and well planned movement with a clear strategy and the right paradigm is undertaken -- and there have been good initiatives and/or Islamic movements started in Muslims countries over the past few decades -- if those who join such a movement do not see any results or see that the results are not proportionately corresponding to their sacrifices, it creates dissention, disunity and segmentation in that movement. People start breaking off and forming splinter groups. Some become so disenchanted that they quit Islamic work altogether. Others may take desperate measures, in their mind trying to accelerate the progress, but causing more damage to the cause and creating hindrances in the way of the work being done. That explains the phenomena whereby we see many splinter groups broken off from the Islamic movements taking extremist actions and creating more difficulties for the legitimate parent Islamic movements. Despite their heroic efforts over the past 50 years or so, the Islamic movements have not yet succeeded in achieving their goal because of the stagnation, despair and defeatism with which the majority of our Ummah is suffering from.

Unfortunately, people do not realize the challenging task those organizations are facing and, instead of joining them in their work, they become disenchanted with the work of the movements in general.

In summary, as per the equation of change quoted above, if the Ummah is to change its fate and remedy the ailments it is suffering from, we have to work towards:
  • Raising the consciousness level in the overwhelming majority of our Ummah that the current situation is not acceptable and that there is a better alternative;
  • Making a clear Islamic vision a reality in our minds and a conviction that it is attainable;
  • Developing a common, united strategy and coordinated action plans that people can relate to and buy in with strong expectations that it will work to make the vision a reality;
  • Helping people walk in small, baby steps towards the goals according to the strategy and plans developed together;
  • Celebrating, appreciating and sharing each success attained to reinforce the commitment and sustain the motivation.

The current series of articles I am writing are a part of my humble efforts for the same purpose. I started with the problems of the Ummah to underscore that the current situation is unacceptable, and to channel this dissatisfaction into a meaningful sustained activism. Then, I documented and presented the vision. And currently we are going through the steps that each of us needs to take to remedy the ailments we had identified. We have already reviewed in detail the work we need to do on our individual personalities (see attached for those who may have missed it or want to re-read it). Next we will be dealing with the correct Islamic paradigm (the proper outlook towards Islam as a way of life, our collective efforts as an Ummah and the issues of unity, coordinated efforts and strategy.

Naturally, in a long drawn-out effort such as this, it is possible for the reader to lose the focus of the discussion and the direction it is taking. That is why the approach is regularly reviewed during the series of articles so that we all remain aware of where we are heading.

This little equation is a very powerful tool to explain the psychology of change to all those who are interested to better their personal or community life. However, considering that there are all kinds of people in our Ummah, I will not be surprised if someone objects to the use of a modern tool to explain our Islamic goals. But those who have studied the Sunnah of our Prophet seriously and reflected upon it to gain guidance and wisdom from it for the Islamic work will see that nothing in this equation is new. Our Prophet SAAWS was an expert par excellence in this psychology of change. Through a very sophisticated application and use of this psychology, he created the greatest, most profound and most comprehensive change in the shortest period of time with the most far-reaching impact than anyone else in the history of mankind.

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