Can you teach an old dog new tricks?
Posted May 1, 2015on:
You are biased and I am biased. If you choose not to admit that, then you are stubborn and biased.
We are biased because we learn things that help us survive. Things like talking or acting a certain way. We are biased even when we learn to balance a bike a certain way.
This amusing and informative video illustrates just that. If you ride a bike that turns right when you try to turn left, you cannot ride it even if you already know how to ride a normal bike well.
The creator of the video declared: Once you have a rigid way of thinking… you cannot change that even if you want to.
Most people can relate to this if they think about value systems or mindsets. Change agents learn this lesson the hard way and very quickly when trying to implement change.
But an anecdote with multiple demonstrations, no matter how intriguing, is not necessarily representative.
The man and his son illustrated that it was possible to unlearn something deeply embedded. He learnt to ride the “backwards bike” in eight weeks; his son did it in two weeks.
He then made a statement about neuroplasticity that reeks of Prensky-speak that should be ignored in this context. Neuroplasticity is a physiological process that refers to how the brain can change throughout life.
While it might be true that a young brain learns faster than an old one, we also retain the capacity to unlearn and relearn throughout life. It is possible to teach an old dog new tricks. It just takes time and effort.
One thing the video did not explore is mindset. This is not a function of brain physiology but of many other things like work culture, social environment, individual drive, risk-taking capacity, etc. We will change only when we
- are aware there is a different way of doing things (e.g., just-in-time and just-for-me learning via Twitter)
- realize that there is a problem with the status quo (e.g., meaningless mandatory workshops), and
- think we have the capacity to change (e.g., mentors to guide).
If you want to teach an actual old dog new tricks, it will require practice and rewards. The process is Pavlovian.
If you want to change people, you must not only persist and incentivize. You must also address their mindsets.