Priming the mind

Priming the mind

What do elephants and humans have in common? Both can be conditioned to behave in certain ways

I had a fascinating experience on my last trip to Thailand. As part of the package we had an outing to ride on an elephant. When we arrived, I was totally surprised to see this powerful elephant tied to a small stump with a thin, dangly piece of rope. I approached the guide and asked if the elephant had ever wandered off. Surely that piece of rope won’t stop him from running away?

The guide assured me that the elephant wouldn’t even consider leaving. Now I was curious and enquired why that was so. His response was very revealing.

What they do is tie the elephant to the stump from a very young age. The young calf will try to break free, but will be unable to do so. Eventually, it stops trying, because it no longer believes it can break free. As the elephant grows bigger, it has the strength to easily break free, but it doesn’t try to do so, because it has been conditioned to believe that it is impossible.

I wonder how many people have similar beliefs when it comes to safety? How many of our teams really believe that “zero” is possible? If they don’t, how is that impacting their daily behaviour?

One of the biggest challenges leaders face is not to get employees to work in a safe manner, but to have them believe that they can do so, and that it is worthwhile. It is this change of belief and attitude that will renew people’s commitment to safety and drive a new set of behaviours.

Targeting unhelpful behaviour is a futile exercise if people don’t believe change is possible. The demand on leaders is to learn the skill of influencing people’s thinking and beliefs towards safety. Changes here will manifest in behaviour changes.

Numerous scientific experiments have been conducted to prove this. One that stands out was facilitated by three Yale University professors. They studied the impact of “priming” on participants using key words.

One sample was primed for rudeness. The participants were given a set of words that they needed to unscramble. Each of the words was associated to some form of being abrupt, or impatient. Another group did exactly the same exercise, but their words reinforced the notion of being polite and respectful.

After they completed the assignment, participants were asked to hand the results to another professor. When they arrived, that person was engaged in a conversation that forced the participants to wait.

Consistently, the participants who were primed with words relating to rudeness became annoyed far more quickly than those who were primed for patience. They interrupted the discussion significantly faster than the other group. In fact, consistently the “patient” group waited respectfully for up to ten minutes for the conversation to conclude. This is a startling finding.

Priming is simply influencing someone towards a desired outcome. It isn’t brainwashing, as you cannot give someone a range of words concerning robbing a bank and expect them to go and do it. However, it does trigger the unconscious to think, feel and behave in a particular way. It creates structures of thinking.

In the experiment there was a definite change of behaviour when exposed to key words. The professors made the participant’s subconscious obsessed with a state of being. What are you making your the subconscious of your employees obsessed about? Are you priming them for safety?

Furthermore, if I tell you to think of a red balloon, there is a high probably that an image of a red balloon will pop into your mind. You simply can’t help it. Now, if I tell you to not think of a red balloon, you will most probably still think of the balloon. Likewise, it is essential that leaders talk about what they want, instead of what they don’t want.

It is about communicating in a way that people cannot help but think of what you have just talked about. It catches their attention and they make it their focus. This is even more important when we understand that the conscious mind can only focus on seven units of information at one time.

This does not mean seven things – it means seven units. A stimulating conversation, or driving a car attentively, will use all of your seven units of focus. The conscious mind has a very limited processing capacity.

We have the ability to influence the things on which our employees concentrate. What is the image you want your employees to see? What attitudes do you want them to embody? Are you communicating in a way that stimulates those thoughts … or just the opposite? Are we getting employees to focus and concentrate on how to do the task safely, or are we distracting their seven units?

These tools are easy to use, allowing leaders to consistently communicate the importance and value of safety. In what ways are you intentionally priming your team to work safely each day? What is the focus and quality of your pre-shift meetings? Remember, a leader’s attitude has an infectious influence on his or her teams.

Dr Brett Solomon is a principal consultant at Sentis, and has been involved in numerous safety culture change initiatives with progressive thinking organisations such as Anglo American, Glencore Alloys, PPC and Aveng Moolmans. Currently he is working closely with BHP in South Africa and Impala Platinum.

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