It’s Not a Secret, We Just Don’t Talk About It

Another VERY interesting article by Dr Robert Long about choosing your words, slogans and messages with great care. I was only reading last night about the “elephant in the room” idiom!. If you liked this article then you should read the whole series: CLICK HERE. I highly recommend you check out Rob’s new book “RISK MAKES SENSE”

It’s Not a Secret, We Just Don’t Talk About It

imageThere are some things that are best not spoken about, we know they exist, we know they are true but we also know that discussing some matters ‘prime’ the behavior of others. Priming is what happens when cultural context, social influences, environment and language affect the way people think and act. The expert on priming is Dr John Bargh, distinguished academic and social psychologist at Yale University. Dr Bargh and his colleagues have undertaken extensive research and conducted many experiments which demonstrate that humans can be ‘primed’. Bargh’s work is brilliant in demonstrating the ways our unconscious can be influenced. It’s a heavy read but The New Unconscious (Ed. Hassin, Uleman and Bargh) is worth it.

Here are some examples of how the unconscious is ‘primed’ by environment, language and social context:

The Chameleon Effect

One of the tactics of exponents of Neuro Linguistic Programing (NLP) is ‘mirroring’. NLP people copy your behavior and language and in so doing know that this will make you like them. Mimicking and copying others happens all the time, like the yawn effect or hearing people repeat back to you phrases and words which are your won. Bargh called this the Chameleon Effect. I conduct experiments in my training and demonstrate this kind of ‘priming’ to be true each week.

The Groupthink Effect

What happens in a crowd after a car race or rally? Do you witness some people driving as if they were in the race? We observe this effect in Canberra streets every year in January following SummerNats ( I remember as a kid dressing up after watching a show on Superman and reenacting the role of the TV story. I was so powerful, I could even bash my sister.

The groupthink effect helps us understand why it is so difficult for football players and military people to resists models of abuse in the way they treat others. When one’s environment conditions one to be desensitised to others, then violence and abuse are difficult to get out of the system when one transitions to anther setting.

Unconscious Goal Motivation

Many of us are unaware of what motivates us and are sometimes surprised by our own behavior, a common saying in court is: ‘I don’t know what came over me’. It is clear to us at times that our unconscious is in charge, not our rational conscious mind. This is obvious to us when we drive on automatic and have no recollection of how we drove home. We have much to learn about automaticity. It is also obvious when people burst out in uncontrolled anger, frenzy (as in rock concerts), spiritual hysteria (as in speaking in tongues and charismatic events) and day dreaming. If we could access and interview our unconscious I wonder what we would like to ask it? A good read is Timothy Wilson Strangers to Ourselves: The Adaptive Unconscious.

Visual Stimulation

This is why advertising works, the TV show Gruen Transfer shows just how much people are influenced by subliminal messages in advertising. The images in advertising and the words all have effect. We can all recall readily slogans for McDonalds, Nike, Pepsi and Coke yet have trouble remembering the name of a school teacher we spend hundreds of hours with. We know that some images are not helpful, they stimulate unethical thoughts and behaviours, this is why society regulates certain images and censors certain things.

Parent and grandparents know that messages can be harmful, we don’t want those messages to become a part of our young person’s world. I used to see the effect of harmful priming in the lives of many children when I worked in community services and with high risk children. We see the effects of harmful priming in the lives of many people who end up in the court and the prison system. Often what happened was an innocent beginning with what seemed to be good intentions that ended up on a harmful and unethical trajectory. Those with wisdom in risk have the insight to see the end point from what seems to be innocent beginnings.

With this knowledge of priming in mind, why is it that so many CEOs and people in the safety and risk industry ignore the evidence, as if words, language and messages don’t matter? So many people and CEOs in the safety industry select their slogans, messages and mottos in some naïve bubble as if the psychology of goals and priming are irrelevant. They jump to some phrase or slogan with no idea or understanding of the trajectory they have chosen, it just looks good at the time. Then in a few years when nothing changes and skepticism is at boiling point, they have to develop some ‘spin’ or manipulate the data to demonstrate its success. The ‘sunk cost effect’ tells us that it’s too hard to admit the mistake when an good old excuse will suffice. It can’t possibly be the trajectory that was chosen which more deeply embedded the same old same old message and lack of ownership.

So, what are the messages you omit in your safety and risk discourse? Do you omit them consciously? Are you aware of the trajectory you have chosen with your safety and risk management strategy? Are your creating ownership or dependence in the management of risk?

You can do something about it, it just takes some reframing and a little training and you too can influence your safety and risk culture by understanding how your talk matters.



Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

Latest posts by Dr Rob Long (see all)

Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

Do you have any thoughts? Please share them below