Fear of change

Cainophobia or Cainotophobia, Cenophobia or Centophobia, Kainolophobia or Kainophobia, or Neophobia is defined as the persistent and abnormal fear of anything new; things, ideas or situations, of novelty. In its milder form, it can manifest as the unwillingness to try new things or break from routine.

Anybody wanting to spread some fear into any organization – sports team, company, army – only has to say the following sentence, and panic will ensue: “There will be some changes made around here.”

But, it’s not really change we’re afraid of, is it? We can’t live without change. For example, most of us living up in the northern hemisphere like having different seasons. Aha! But we know what the seasons are, don’t we? We know what to expect. In fact, we love different kinds of clothes, food, we like variation. (Unless you suffer from food neophobia, and only eat things you’ve had before).


In politics, change is often a good thing. All parties are for change. Barack Obama ran for president with “change we can believe in”.

We may not fear change as much as we fear the unknown. We can take change, but we despise being changed, having to react to an outside impulse. When a new boss announces “some changes” in the organization, what spreads is insecurity. Everybody has questions, but only few people have answers.

When faced with danger, a threat – and the unknown surely is one – we almost get reduced to primates. Our brains send our bodies the age-old multiple choice quiz: fight or flight? We get stressed. We don’t feel well. And since we regress, we regress back to being children. And just so happens that children (and the elderly) are the people who long for routines the most.

According to a theory by American physicist Thomas Kuhn, new ideas, even great ones, are implemented only when the generations who consider them new die, and are replaced by generations who consider the ideas accepted and old.

Unfortunately, that rate of acceptance of change doesn’t really work for companies, and maybe that’s why, according to Harvard professor John P. Kotter, a leading change expert, about 70 percent of corporate programs meant to create change, fail. Change is something you can’t ram down people’s throats, no matter how hard you try.

However, Kotter’s advice for improving the chances of creating change is exactly the equivalent of a generation of non-believers dying: fire the troublemakers.

On a personal level, people seem to want to change their lives by changing themselves more than ever before. We try new diets, we find new ways to exercise, learn new languages, and try to become better public speakers, managers, and coaches.

Even big change can be made in increments, and by exhibiting great perseverance for just a short period of time. According to Dr Maxwell Maltz’s 1971 book “Psycho-Cybernetics”, 21 days is enough to create a new habit. Originally a surgeon, Maltz noticed that it took 21 days for amputees to cease feeling phantom sensations in the amputated limb.

Paradoxically, making the change, creating a new habit is easier if it’s done routinely, at the same time – possibly wearing the same clothes – for 21 straight days.

Of course, taking the first step maybe scary. Who know what awaits on the other side? In the words of the fictional character of Forrest Gump: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get”.

Or, as Benjamin Franklin put it in a letter to his friend Jean-Baptiste Leroy in 1789: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

Death. The ultimate unknown. Also the state when nothing changes anymore.

How depressing.

Let’s change the topic.

(A column that ran in the Fall issue of Profile)

How does that make you feel?