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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 12-May-13


Sunday 12-May-13

The simple complexity of avoidant instructions

A lot of persuasion is about how to get people to do things you want them to do--but what if you want them to not do something? One of the big problems with this is that when you say 'Don't do X', you are talking about X, which means the other person has to think about X. In other words, you are implanting a suggestion to do the very thing you don't want them to do.

A way of handling this is to reword the instruction to avoid the 'don't'. For example, rather than tell a child carrying a fragile plate 'Don't drop it', it can be more effective to say 'Hold it tight' or 'Be careful with the plate'. This can still cause problems, for example that the child pays so much attention to the plate that they do not see a toy on the floor and consequently trip over it, breaking the plate. A typical adult example where things go wrong is in giving instruction for sports, such as golf, where whatever you say can cause distraction, over-compensation and other unwanted effects.

Researcher Christopher Russell and his colleagues got subjects to repeatedly use a computer mouse to trace an imaginary straight line between two on-screen dots. Some subjects were told 'do not move to the left'. The result for many was over-compensation, as they moved more to the right, and consequently making more mistakes in this direction. Others followed the suggestive effect and moved more to the left. This second group scored higher in anxiety in personality and current-state tests. This implies that anxious people are more suggestible and that others are more likely to over-compensate in the opposite direction.

A curious effect happened when the researchers provided a cognitive distraction by asking the subjects to keep a seven digit number in mind while repeating the experiment. Now, the effects were reversed! The anxious people now over-compensated to the right while the other people drifted to the left. A conclusion may be drawn from this that suggestion seems more effective either when the person is anxious or when they are distracted (and that perhaps anxiety itself is a distraction that makes suggestion more effective). But what of the reversal for the anxious people? Perhaps the task to remember the number served as a secondary distraction that pulled their attention away from the anxiety.

What perhaps this research shows is that the basic wisdom of positive language is not as straightforward as may seem, and for subconscious influence to be more effective, then distraction of conscious attention is important. And the corollary of this is that to reduce subconscious effects, distractions should be removed.

Russell, C. and Grealy, M. (2010). Avoidant instructions induce ironic and over-compensatory movement errors differently between and within individuals. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 63 (9), 1671-1682

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