How to turn off a person’s thinking brain

1132365_fd5c479ec1_m“Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.” –Alfred North Whitehead

The following story about turkeys has been brought to you by the science of ethology—the study of animals in their natural habitat.

Here goes: Mother turkeys are loving and nurturing and protective. They warm and clean and feed and do all the things that good mothers do. But there is one very odd thing about turkey mothers. All of this mothering behavior is dependent upon a very specific trigger—the “cheep-cheep” sound of the chick. If a baby turkey makes this sound, all is well. If not, the mother turkey will ignore the chick. Sometimes she will even kill it.

Of course animal behaviorists found this fascinating, so they took a replica of a polecat, the natural enemy of the turkey, and had a little fun. First, they presented the stuffed polecat to mother turkey and, as expected, the turkey attacked it. Next, they put a little recorder inside the fake polecat. This recorder played, you guessed it, the same “cheep-cheep” sound that the chicks made. With the recorder on, the turkey accepted the polecat into her flock, treating it as one of her own. The scientists then turned off the recording and the turkey again attacked it. Scientists are great practical jokers.

So what have we learned? Mother turkeys are very silly. They will kill one of their own just because it doesn’t go “cheep-cheep,” and will nurture a natural enemy just because it does. The mother turkey’s maternal instincts are on autopilot, and the button or trigger for that autopilot is the “cheep-cheep” sound of her chicks.

These autopilot scenarios, called “fixed-action patterns,” are actually quite common in the animal world. All that’s needed to engage them is a trigger. Mating rituals, maternal instincts, migration, hibernation, and nesting are all fixed action patterns dependent on a trigger. Presenting a trigger is like pushing a button to start a computer a program.

Silly animals. We humans never do anything so ridiculous, right? Actually, we do it all the time. In fact, many people seek special training and build careers in order to trigger these automatic behaviors in us. These careers are in sales, or marketing, or politics. Others just have a talent for it. They know how to push our buttons, load up the programs, and suddenly we’re standing at the checkout counter with a fistful of flowers and a guilty feeling in our gut. He who knows the most buttons wins.

Consider the following story, brought to you by social psychologist Ellen Langer of Harvard. Langer and her team have become quite famous for what has come to be known as “The Copy Machine” study—an ingenious experiment created to measured students’ willingness to allow someone to cut in front of them in a line at a library copy machine.

“Excuse me,” she’d say. “I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” Put this way, the students allowed her to skip ahead 60 percent of the time. Not bad, but Langer found she could do better stating it this way: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?” Put this way, the students allowed the intrusion 94 percent of the time.

At first, Langer and her team thought the key persuasive trigger was the reason, “because I’m in a rush.” Just to be sure, they tried one more phrase–one without any real reason: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?”

Because I need to make some copies? That’s just restating the obvious. Still, 93 percent complied with her request. The persuasive trigger was not the reason at all. The trigger was the word “because.” That’s it. Science of influence technique #1: Push button labeled “because” to run compliance program.

This experiment has been repeated and the results verified hundreds of times, proving that people can be triggered to run on autopilot almost as easily as mother turkeys. Which begs the question: Who’s pushing your buttons?

“Cheep-cheep.”

Founder of WeTeachWeLearn.org, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Email Chris at: mrwondra@weteachwelearn.org.

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