Why We Miss Freeway Exits

The role of routine in keeping us on track

Posted Aug 25, 2011

Why do actors insist on rehearsals? They're professionals, after all. Why not save their studio execs fistfuls of cash and themselves all that extra effort? Why don't directors simply yell, "Roll 'em!" and capture whatever comes out on film? With all the money they'd save, the rest of us might even be spared an extra dollar or two at the box office.

If you happen to be a great shower singer, but bungle badly on karaoke night, you might well intuit the answer.

When the context shifts, things just aren't the same.

I once worked with a dolphin who, after months of hard training, had learned to perform a whole series of tasks in rapid succession, one behavior following neatly on the heels of another - until the day came when an unexpected observer, albeit one familiar to and seemingly well-liked by the dolphin - stopped by to watch.

Suddenly, the dolphin's smooth transitions from task to task became clunky. Then the individual tasks themselves went sour until, finally, the entire behavioral ballet came to a grinding halt.

Context shifts - really just simple changes in circumstances - can throw the best of us for a loop. We are often especially prone to the disruptive influence of a context shift when we are attempting to perform a chained behavior - one in which completion of each individual behavioral link becomes the cue to perform the next behavior in the series.

In my last post, for example, I discussed how routines, sometimes elaborately strange ones like the pre-windup dances performed by many Major League pitchers, can be formed on the basis of subconscious associations.

Adjust the ball cap BEFORE pounding glove with fist? Never!

"I did that once," we might well imagine a Big Leaguer opining, "and the batter brought in two runs in the bottom of the ninth."

No wonder we are creatures of habit. Even when routines have little to do with outcomes (pitching mound dances are just one example), our perceptions of cause and effect often create superstitious beliefs that govern our behavior.

The writer John Cheever used to strip down to his skivvies when he worked on short stories - after donning a formal suit to travel to his office. Literary spy novelist Graham Greene was known to have checked himself into a hotel in order to complete the final drafts of his works, and Virginia Woolf often wrote while standing up.

But not all routines are superstitious in nature. In fact, it is quite true that when we interfere with a routine, behavioral chaos and undesired outcomes often result.

Ever been shooed from the family kitchen by a busy chef? Better that than a burnt roast. Or perhaps you occasionally miss a familiar freeway exit? There's likely a reason for winding up on the scenic route, as any number of mental sidetracks can pull us from processing the steady flow of visual cues that generally lead to a trouble-free ride. Disengage the auto-pilot of routine and what follows is typically a bit untidy.

That's why actors, singers, and hoop-jumping dolphins hold dry-run readings and dress rehearsals. Well, actually, dolphins usually forego the readings, but still . . .

By carefully orchestrating a series of smaller shifts in context, familiar actions play out against a backdrop of managed behavioral damage control.

The upside? Each change in circumstance is likely to produce minor glitches rather than major gaffes. By the time we see actors and other performers at their best, they've already done their worst.

The downside? Better not hold our breath for those discounted box office tickets.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2011