Automatic compliance

“Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.” – Alfred North Whitehead, English mathematician and philosopher

“Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them.”

– Alfred North Whitehead, English mathematician and philosopher

“Do you remember the barn swallow?”

It was Father’s Day and my cousin Lloyd and I were reminiscing about our childhoods and our fathers in particular. As a child, Lloyd had spent nearly every summer on our family farm. We’d grown up together – more like brothers than cousins. It was a precious time.

“I can still see Uncle Albert ducking and diving for cover.”

I laughed heartily when Lloyd reminded me of the incident.

One Saturday morning a long time ago, Lloyd and I had been roused from breakfast by my father’s frantic outburst. We were surprised to find a barn swallow in the front porch. The bird was determined to drive off my father by dive-bombing him. Each time the bird did so, Father would duck, cover his head and come up cursing. My father was a big man, over six feet, and to see him bobby and weaving to avoid attack from this tiny assailant was hilarious.

I knew swallows had built a nest in the peak of the porch roof. The little guy had obviously flown into the porch enclosure by accident. Mother soon came from the kitchen to investigate, followed by my brother and sister. Our presence agitated the bird severely and it tried with every fibre of its feathered being to escape – banging into the porch window repeatedly. De-spite all evidence that the window was closed, the bird kept pounding against it, pausing only when overcome by a moment of exhaustion, and then resumed the exercise in futility.

“Stop him,” my tearful sister cried. “He’s hurting himself.”

Every time one of us moved, the swallow launched into a new spasm of panic. The bird’s instincts clearly told it to fly toward the light. That might have worked in the open when a hawk swooped down toward it, but it was of little use here.

In the end, Mom tossed a tea towel over the frightened bird, carried it outside and released it into the air. It launched abruptly into flight and made for the clear and open sky.

Research suggests the brains of animals and birds are hardwired with what scientists call fixed-action patterns, so certain stimuli elicit specific responses. Hence the swallow believed light signified freedom, despite evidence to the contrary.

As humans, we may know enough not to batter ourselves repeatedly against a closed win-dow, but we can also be slaves to our own “trigger” mechanisms. Whether we like it or not, most of us do respond in a predictable manner due to certain core beliefs embedded in our psyches. These biases produce what many experts refer to as automatic compliance. In other words, when another person hits one of our triggers, we’re most likely to respond in a certain preprogrammed manner without really thinking about it.

An understanding of these mechanisms has allowed mass manipulation by everyone from advertisers and the media to the political system, or so says Robert Cialdini, American social psychologist and author of the best-seller, Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion. Cialdini characterizes automatic responses with the phrase “Click-Whirr.” Click and the appropriate tape is activated. Whirr and out rolls the standard sequence of behaviours. Says Cialdini, “Evidence suggests that the ever-accelerating pace and informational crush of modern living will make this form of unthinking compliance more and more prevalent in the future.”

Cialdini cites the experiments of Ellen Langer, professor of psychology at Harvard University, which demonstrated that humans are more likely to comply with a request if a reason is also given, even if that reason makes no sense. The word “because” triggers the automatic compliance response.

“A well-known principle of human behaviour says that when we ask someone to do us a favour we will be more successful if we provide a reason. People simply like to have reasons for what they do.”

The good news is, unlike the swallow, we have the ability to transcend our programming and stop most automatic responses. We can choose to stop doing what doesn’t work and find a better way. And it all starts with awareness – a primary component to healthy self-esteem. In this instance, the word STOP is an acronym for: See, Think, Observe and Put it together.

l See. Become a photojournalist studying you. Look for repetitive cycles and strategies that no longer serve you. Think about the ways in which your behaviour, thoughts and feelings are unwittingly contributing to the problem. Replay the situation that is causing you grief. As best you can, try to visualize a recurring stuck state in every detail.

l Think. How does your thinking influence the way you respond? What fears or self-defeating beliefs are contributing to this repetitive pattern of conduct? Are you dealing with feelings of inadequacy or using an old coping mechanism that no longer serves you?

l Observe. Take a step backward and notice your body language, tone of voice and facial expressions. Imagine that you’ve captured the moment on film. What do these photos illustrate that help you better understand the problem? Discover how you “do” the problem.

l Put it together. Raising your level of awareness and striving to attain a healthy level of self-esteem will help you to understand the interwoven emotional and mental factors that shape your world. The more aware you are of your fear and perceptions, the easier it will be to choose new and effective strategies and release automatic and unhealthy responses.

“There are two main strategies we can adopt to improve the quality of life,” writes Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. “The first is to try making external conditions match our goals. The second is to change how we experience external conditions to make them fit our goals better.”

An awareness of better choices will free you make for the clear and open sky.

Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at