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Why Do We Do What We’re Told Not to Do?

October 2, 2015

why we do what we're told not to

As a researcher at NIH, I learned something about the brain that could save you and your team hours of devastating errors and accidents and frustrating re-dos.

Whether we realize it or not, we have a Positive Command Brain.

Our brain is wired to see, hear, feel, taste, smell… and take action. We’re programmed to respond without thinking. Sense/do. Sense/do. Doctors know this and so do top athletes and pilots who hyper-train to avoid having to take time to think in a crisis.

Primitive man needed this brain to survive lions and tigers. But sometime in the distant past, the concept of “not” was introduced.

Not statements create a challenging complication. If we rely on our primitive brain, we automatically and unconsciously take “not actions”… sometimes threatening our safety and others’. And compromising our ability to manage and lead.

Take these frequently-used-and-abused instructions for example: Don’t drink and drive. Don’t steal. Don’t cheat. Don’t use drugs. Why do we do what we’re told not to do? The truth is we can’t help it; it’s the way our brain works.

Don’t play with matches while we’re out.

A sales manager at Kimberly-Clark told me a story that tragically reinforces the danger of “not instructions” especially with kids. Three months before my seminar, Kevin and his wife Barbara left their son Bobby with a sitter. As they pulled on their coats, Kevin heard Barbara say, “Bobby, don’t play with matches while we’re out. Promise me you won’t.” Kevin thought it was strange because Bobby was afraid of matches, but they were late and so he didn’t say anything until they’d driven away.

In the car, Barbara said she’d watched a TV show that afternoon about children setting fires while they were staying with sitters. Those scenes of badly-burned, heavily-bandaged kids kept playing over and over in her mind, so she felt she had to say something to protect their son. Kevin understood.

They enjoyed dinner and headed home. When they turned onto their street, they saw fire trucks on their lawn. Their son had followed her “not instruction.” He had played with matches and set fire to the drapes. The sitter called 911 and they had rushed Bobby to the hospital where he was being treated for life-threatening burns.

If this mother didn’t want her son to play with matches, what did she need to say and do instead? She could have created an action plan… choosing specific games, TV shows, or inviting over a friend… and then carefully reviewed the plan with her son and her sitter before leaving. Plus remembering to put the matches out of reach of course!

Understanding “not thoughts” and instructions requires two essential steps.

  • First, we unconsciously remove the not so we can understand what we’re sensing. So Don’t play with matches immediately becomes do play with matches in our brain.
  • Second, we must remember the not and spell out in detail what we do want instead.

Years ago, I was a consultant to a government organization that was struggling to create a now-familiar sign. They wondered whether they should say, “In case of fire don’t take the elevator”… leaving people frightened and undirected? Or take that extra step and include a life-saving plan… “In case of fire don’t take the elevator; use the stairs,” and post directions to all the stairwells? After numerous tests, it was clear which choice worked better to quickly and calmly move people out of danger.

Yes, we do what we’re told not to do because we fail to give our brain, and others’ brains, that vital second set of instructions!


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The ability to give effective instructions to your team allows for increased productivity and improves communication. Enhance your leadership skills with these AMA resources and seminars.
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About The Author

Susan Ford Collins is “America’s Premier Success and Leadership Coach” according to CNN. Susan is the creator of THE TECHNOLOGY of SUCCESS, the powerful leadership system used in more than 3,000 training programs in major corporations and startups. And she coaches individuals one-to-one. Susan is the author of The Joy of Success, Success Has Gears, and Our Children Are Watching… available on amazon.

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