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You Get What You Focus On - Keep Off the Grass!
Thu 11th September, 2014 lmc-solutions-facebook lmx-solutions-tweet lmc-solutions-linked-in lmc-solutions-google-plus lmc-solutions-tell-a-friend
Keep Calm and Carry On

Ever wonder why there are so many tracks in lawns sprouting signs imploring folk to "keep off the grass"?

It is a peculiar human condition but the very act of telling us not to do something usually ensures that it happens. You get what you focus on.

The more rules and regulations we put into place, the greater the chance that they will be broken. The more we publicise the criminality of an activity, the more it happens, albeit more surreptitiously.

None of us likes to be told what to do by others; that's a simple fact. But there is a greater psychology at play here: if you want to change a behaviour focus on what you DO want instead of what you don’t. The motivational slogan the British government used at the start of World War II is a brilliant example of this.

Big business know, as their profits show, if you want something to happen put up a sign telling folk not to do it. Bad press is just as good or maybe even better than good press because it shines a spotlight on the activity in question. The tobacco industry have never vehemently opposed the widespread distribution of "no smoking" signs for one very good reason: The very sign that is supposed to deter smoking actually reinforces the idea in the heads of smokers simply by focusing their attention to it. The sign may as well read " Smoking Zone".

There are numerous examples of this in our modernised world. On a power pylon on a walk I do daily there is a sign warning folk to "Do Not Climb". Talk about putting the idea into someone's head. Similarly "no skateboarding", "no loitering", "no dogs", "no mobiles" and a sign I never thought I'd still see in this day and age, "no women", all make the targeted behaviour or subject more likely to happen. There was a reason why the suffrage movement took off as it did, there were reminders everywhere telling women what they couldn't do and where they couldn't go.

The other day I drove past a sign put up by the Ministry of Transport that stated "Other people make mistakes, slow down." What could they possibly have been thinking? Not only does this message plant the idea of making mistakes into the head of every driver, but the sign makes it okay to blame the other guy; that part of the sign is completely unnecessary. The "Slow Down" is all that was needed; it clearly states what you want drivers to do. Another almost as bad, declares "People aren't built for speed.". I don't know about you, but when I'm flying past a sign like that the only word that sticks in my mind is the last one.

You get what you focus on, whether in a positive or negative way, if you give your attention to it, you reinforce it.

In many cases the colours and symbols used on signs are enough to trigger a reactive response to the degree that many folk often don't register what's printed on the sign. A red circle with a red diagonal slash in anybody's language has come to mean prohibition and often triggers the very behaviour you want to prevent. We have a whole spectrum of colours to choose from, why go for the one that should be reserved for those situations where caution is most necessary?

We get incensed when told we can't do something, but more often than not these sorts of signs put the idea into our heads in the first place. I would never have thought to download a movie illegally, but a popular TV series I bought the boxed set for, showed a clip of someone doing it and then declared that it was a crime before every viewing of every show in the series. It so infuriated me that their target audience were those people who were doing the right thing. If I had any clue how to do it, this daily reminder would have prompted me to have a go. I wonder how many computer savvy folk out there felt as I did. At least they wouldn't have to watch that wretched ad.

It happens in the dog community too. I've seen signs that declare "no dog fouling" surrounded by smudges in the grass where dogs have made a deposit despite the sign. Well done the owners for picking up. But sometimes the signs so criminalise the act, that people just push back.

In France in a village where we own a bit of the past, there is a Gothic church in the town square. On the wall is a sign prohibiting townsfolk from peeing against the walls. A foreigner might be forgiven for thinking the sign actually read "Feel Free to Pee Here" for it is the one spot where the men of the community concentrate their aim to the detriment of the eroding stone beneath. Without the sign I am sure there would be a more general distribution of the fluid, and the stone would cope. After all the church has been there since the 12th century and men have been relieving themselves against its walls all that time.

I am sure many valuable R&D dollars have been spent in researching the effectiveness of these signs, but as with anything you get too much of, after a while they blur together and you get desensitised to their message to the point that you no longer even register the sign and the impact is lost entirely.

So how do you deter folk from doing things that are detrimental to the environment, people's safety, or the common good and ensure that notice is taken? Firstly cut down on the number of signs and come up with poignant ones that capture one's attention and focus on the behaviour you want to see rather than what you don't want.

"Please use the path" gives me much more information than keep off the grass. It tells me first of all that there is a pathway I can take as an alternative to the lawn and it suggests politely that I use this rather than trample the grass. If it has a nice picture and points me in the right direction I am more inclined to follow this sign than anything telling me to ”keep off”.

Instead of "no smoking" signs why not declare an area a "fresh air zone"? Instead of "do not climb" perhaps use "keep clear" that would also work in place of "no parking" and "no loitering" signs. If you wanted to get specific you could state why: "Emergency access/exit, please keep clear". Most folk are decent enough to adhere to a request explained in such a way. The MoT signs could encourage drivers to "keep safe", "be vigilant", "be mindful of the conditions", "be prepared to slow down" or like one the Kapiti Council are using for the new road layouts "Take Extra Care". Signs like these focus attention on what you want folk to do rather than apportioning blame or engaging in scare tactics.

We have the signs we do because they symbolise the regulation and the distrust we have fostered in our society. We have them because we accept them and have come to believe we need them. But do we? At what point did we trade common sense and doing the right thing, for rules, rules and more rules. Perhaps it’s time to relook at the messages we are putting out there, and rethink exactly what it is we are promoting.

You get what you focus on, too jolly right!

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