Douglas Van Praet

Unconscious Branding

Why Warnings, Guidelines, and Restrictions Don’t Work

And what you can do right now to influence others.

Posted Mar 30, 2020

Wendy Wei/Pexels
Spring Break
Source: Wendy Wei/Pexels

When President Trump declared a national emergency due to the Coronavirus at a White House news conference, he couldn’t resist shaking the hands of taskforce members in the Rose Garden. In fact, several U.S. officials shared the same microphone, shook hands, and touched their faces at the press briefing. Healthcare veteran Bruce Greenstein, Executive Vice President of the LHC Group, put an abrupt end to the absurdity by closing his fist and offering up an elbow bump. 

While there is no known vaccine for the Coronavirus we can all still learn from a legendary psychiatrist who was well known for his “miracle cures”. Milton Erickson’s unorthodox approach to behavior change tapped into the power of his patient’s unconscious mind – the part of the mind responsible for most of our behaviors, especially habits like handshaking and face-touching. 

Walk the Walk

The following story from Erickson’s childhood may serve as a helpful metaphor for influencing the behavior of others in an effort to flatten the curve.

One snowy morning, the young and insatiably curious Milton Erickson woke up early to conduct a little experiment. While walking the snow-covered pathway on his way to school, he zigzagged back and forth through the rapidly accumulating snow to create a wavy-patterned trail on the otherwise straight route. When he returned home that afternoon Milton was amused to find that others had followed his lead, tracing his absurd meanderings rather than taking the more direct route. 

From that early lesson, Milton realized that people have a tendency to act without thinking, living their lives on autopilot by simply following the well-worn paths established by others. Erickson grew up to revolutionize psychotherapy and become a leading authority in medical hypnosis and one of the most effective psychiatrists ever. He was known for his ability to rapidly and often unwittingly transform lives and behaviors, much like he changed the habits of his schoolmates on that snowy day.

Go There First

Behavior change therapy has demonstrated that one of the quickest, easiest, and most effective ways to influence someone else’s behavior is to simply do the thing that you want them to do. When you lead the way by changing your own behavior, you have a much better chance of influencing their behavior as opposed to telling them what to do. That’s because we are all hardwired to learn through imitation especially in social environments. When we are in unusual and uncertain social situations we automatically follow the lead of others, often without thinking. 

The most important step to changing our collective behavioral inclinations is to take action. The more frequently we walk the paths of new behaviors, the more automatic and habitual they become, ultimately requiring little or no conscious attention or effort. If you want to change a certain pattern of behavior in others, interrupt their pattern by exhibiting the specific response you want them to emulate. If you want someone to give you more social distance, then back off yourself. Stay home. Elbow bump. Or be the first to model the mask and gloves in the grocery store, etc. 

The Paradox of Restrictions

It may seem counter-intuitive, but this information overload we are all experiencing and the overwhelming sense of impending threat can be very counterproductive. All of these warnings, regulations, restrictions, guidelines, recommendations, advice, etc., may inadvertently be encouraging us to behave in exactly the opposite manner we are being told. Think about it. Who enjoys being told what to do, especially every waking moment on every media channel? This ominous information can create a form of psychological resistance and a tendency to respond in the opposite direction. 

This psychological phenomenon known as reactance generates an uncomfortable motivational state of arousal in response to information, people, rules, or regulations that pose a threat to our personal freedom and decision making. When we feel our choices are being taken away from us, we often push back against these restraints and engage in the contrary and often defiant behavior. Recently, public spaces like parks and beaches became oddly crowded even though residents were ordered to say home and practice social distance. The actions of these defiant crowds only led to more restrictions.

Reactance is why kids ignore parents, criminals break laws, and college students crowd beaches during spring break. One study even discovered that those scary warning labels about the risks of heart disease or emphysema actually stimulated the nucleus accumbens, the “craving spot,” in the brains of smokers. It’s troubling to think that a government-mandated warning intended to save lives by reducing smoking and curbing cancer may be effectively promoting big tobacco.

Freedom, Not Freedumb

What makes this more challenging, is that our nation was built on the cornerstone of freedom. If we want to lead our way out of this pandemic perhaps we can steal a page from the story of Erickson’s school days by freely choosing our own path to safety. If not for yourself, do it for those who are more vulnerable. It may sound trite, but we can’t really change other people but we can change ourselves. Right now, focusing on what you are not doing can be the most patriotic thing you can do.