In Robert Cialdini’s classic book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, he introduces the concept of Fixed Action Patterns by giving the example of wild Turkeys.
Turkeys are smart animals. They solve problems and recognise friends from enemies. A mother Turkey is also loving and caring for its young. But when it comes to protecting their young, they rely on a surprisingly simple trigger: the cheep cheep sound of a chick.
To prove this, animal behaviourist M. W. Fox devised a simple experiment. He presented a stuffed Polecat (the natural enemy of the Turkey) and, as expected, the mother Turkey attacked it. They then put a small speaker inside the stuffed Polecat that played cheep cheep sounds to replicate that of a chick, and the mother Turkey adopted it as one of her own. As soon as the recording was switched off, the Turkey attacked it.
Fixed Action Patterns are triggers that create automatic mechanical behaviour. In this example, the trigger is the cheep cheep sound. As long as the mother Turkey hears the trigger, she’ll happily tend to the chick and if she doesn’t, she’ll ignore it.
You’re probably thinking I thought you said the turkey was smart? Keep in mind that the Turkey almost always does the right thing by using this response. It takes a scientist to trick the Turkey by creating a false trigger.
More importantly, though, we have these automatic trigger responses too. They’re more complicated and nuanced, of course, but they’re still there.
You could think of these as shortcuts for the brain. These shortcuts allow us to make decisions without having to analyse all the pieces in a given situation. The ever increasing pace of modern life makes these shortcuts more essential to our everyday lives. We simply don’t have the time, energy, or mental capacity to process everything.
While these shortcuts are helpful, over-reliance on them can be dangerous for our wellbeing. I call this living on autopilot.
Much of my thinking and writing over the past two years has been around this core theme. How can we be more intentional with our lives and our businesses? How can we be proactive, not reactive? How can we stop living on autopilot?
I don’t have all the answers. There’s still plenty of shit that I do that I don’t want to do. I still have a long way to go. And I’m not sure there’s even an end-point. It’s an on-going journey.
The first step is to simply recognise our automatic trigger responses exist. Once you know they’re there, you can begin to question them, break them down, and understand them. You can then apply conscious and deliberate effort, one step at a time.