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The Upside and Downside of Fixed-Action Patterns

I’ve been having a hard time with something lately — brushing my teeth. Some of you are thinking that’s gross but don’t worry, I brush several times a day and floss too. I guess my problem is really with the toothpaste container. Jane bought Colgate Total, fine toothpaste by the way, but it comes in a stand up tube. While it seems convenient to have the tube on the countertop so I can quickly grab it I don’t find myself doing that. It seems like every time I go to brush my teeth I open the left drawer at the bathroom counter. It’s a small irritation except that I make the same mistake over and over and over. Fortunately there’s a bright side — it inspired this week’s blog post.
Why do I keep making the same mistake time and time again? Simple; I have a set way of going about brushing my teeth that’s served me well for a long time and it’s a hard habit to break. You might say I have “fixed-action pattern.” A daily ritual like this makes my fixed-action pattern very apparent but lest you laugh at me beware because you have them too.In his best-selling book Influence Science and Practice, Dr. Cialdini talks about fixed-action patterns in the animal kingdom which are inborn to ensure survival. When it comes to people he wrote, “The automatic behavior patterns of humans tend to be learned rather than inborn, more flexible than the lock-step patterns of the lower animals, and responsive to a larger number of triggers.” He goes on the say, “we, too, have our preprogrammed tapes; and, although they usually work to our advantage, the trigger features that activate them can dupe us into playing the tapes at the wrong times.” In humans these patterns are developed because we eventually find what works best for us (toothpaste in the left drawer) and stick with it. It makes life easier because it simplifies decision making and saves time. They trigger an almost automatic response in many cases. For example, if you are looking to buy a new computer you might turn to someone you know (liking) because they know much more about computers (authority) than you or most salespeople do. Something like this usually works out well because it saves time, headaches and money. We’ve probably all done this at one time or another when looking for a computer, car, phone or some other relatively expensive item where you feel you lack sufficient knowledge.Of course there can be a downside too. As I wrote, the toothpaste thing is just a minor irritant but there are some people who prey on these automatic responses because they know they can get what they want before you realize what happened. One example was in the Influencers From Around the World article a few weeks ago by Marco Germani. He shared how the Italian prime minister used liking to sidestep criticism over allegations of improprieties with a 17 year-old girl. From what I gather Silvio Berusconi didn’t seem to suffer much for his actions. I’ve taken taekwondo for many years but I don’t intend to go beat up anyone. My goal was to learn how to defend myself because I know there are bad people out there who might just try to harm me or my family. Understanding the principles of influence, and your own mindless tendencies, can be your self defense against unethical people who would try to take advantage of you.As you read Influence PEOPLE, keep an eye on how you can ethically utilize the principles to create a win-win situation for you and those you deal with. At the same time keep an eye out for those who would seek to do you harm. In the end you might just help a lot of people and keep yourself safe.Brian, CMCT
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Helping You Learn to Hear “Yes”.