Why Are You Crossing the Road?

By Jim Whitt

This is Chapter 2 from my series from The Transformational Power of Purpose: Finding & Fulfilling Your Purpose in Life:

In the film City Slickers, Mitch (Billy Crystal) is a New York radio ad salesman experiencing a midlife crisis. He and his two closest friends, who are pretty much in the same boat, decide that a cattle drive on a dude ranch is the perfect vacation. My favorite scene is when Curly (Jack Palance), the tougher-than-nails old cowboy, is riding alone with Mitch looking for strays:

Curly: How old are you? Thirty-eight?

Mitch: Thirty-nine.

Curly: You all come up here about the same age, same problems. You spend about fifty weeks a year gettin’ knots in your rope and then you think two weeks up here will untie ‘em for you. None of you get it.
You know what the secret of life is?

Mitch: No, what?

Curly: This (holding up his index finger).

Mitch: Your finger?

Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean s____.

Mitch: That’s great but what’s the one thing?

Curly: That’s what you gotta figure out.

I can relate to Mitch. I had my rope all tied up in knots but after a year-and-half at Green Acres I had figured it out. The one thing was finding my purpose. I was put here on earth to help people reach their full potential. Now that I knew my destination in life I was ready to roll on the road less traveled. All I needed now was a vehicle to get me there.

One of my clients from my failed marketing venture provided me with one. Mel headed up the largest family-owned agricultural enterprise in the state of Kansas and was a stockholder in many other businesses. One day he and I were visiting about the challenges of managing his ever growing enterprise and he said they needed help. He pointed out the fact that I had several years of experience working for two major corporations and that maybe I could advise them.

That’s how I became a management consultant.

Mel was one of the people put in my path to help me fulfill my purpose. He was able to see something in me that I wasn’t even able to see in myself. My purpose of helping people reach their full potential pulled me into the personal and organizational development business that I’m still engaged in today.

I had evolved all the way from cow puncher to people provoker. My degree in animal science and a lifetime of working in the livestock industry had prepared me to understand human behavior from a very unique perspective. That’s not exactly the education and career path most people take to become a management consultant. It’s not the path I would have chosen but that’s the transformational power of purpose.

Discovering my purpose has helped me put my past into perspective. The good, the bad and yes, even the ugly chapters of my life have provided the necessary experience I needed to fulfill my purpose. The path of purpose may not always make sense in the present tense but it makes perfect sense when viewed in the past tense. In the words of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, “Life must be lived forward but understood backward.”

Cowboy Psychology

My wife eventually joined me as a partner in our business. She has a masters degree in industrial/organizational psychology. I’ve always jokingly said that when it comes to dealing with people, my degree in animal science works better.

The Human Genome Project produced some interesting findings. Only three percent of the genetic pool makes up the human genes. Humans share 75% of the same genes with a rat and 98.4% of the same genes with a chimpanzee. That’s encouraging, isn’t it? If it weren’t for a 1.6% difference in your DNA you’d be sharing a banana with a chimp right now.

Now that we’ve established the fact that we share much of the same gene pool with rats and monkeys, let’s drill a little deeper. What separates us from other animals? To answer that question I’ve developed what I call Cowboy Psychology.

To understand Cowboy Psychology let’s explore the age-old conundrum that has perplexed the human species for centuries, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” The stock answer is, “To get to the other side.” But why did the chicken want to get to the other side?  What was the chicken’s motivation? As you can tell, my experience with Elmer led me to delve deep into the poultry psyche.

The root word of motivation is motivate. Motivate means “to stimulate to action.” The root word of motivate is motive. Therefore, motivation requires a motive. For the chicken, there are only two possible motives to cross the road. One, there is something on its side of the road it is trying to get away from (pain or punishment) or two, there is something on the other side of the road it is trying to get to (pleasure or reward). In other words, the chicken is merely responding to pain or pleasure. The stimuli of reward and punishment can be used to motivate the chicken. Provide the appropriate stimulus and the chicken responds.

I can train any animal using these two stimuli.

After much repetition the animal’s behavior becomes a conditioned response to the stimulus or some other trigger that’s associated with the stimulus. This is what psychologists call classical or operant conditioning.

To get an animal to repeat a specific behavior, some type of reward is used as a stimulus. If you’ve ever been to Sea World you’ve seen Shamu, the killer whale, perform tricks such as jumping through a hoop. For properly performing a trick, Shamu is rewarded with a couple of fish.

Shamu has been fed a small ocean full of fish to keep him jumping through the hoop. And to keep Shamu performing these tricks the reward must always be waiting at the end. If the trainer stops feeding Shamu the fish for jumping through the hoop, Shamu stops jumping through the hoop. To get Shamu to perform an even more difficult trick, the trainer will increase the degree of stimulation. In Shamu’s case that means more fish.

To get an animal to discontinue a specific behavior, punishment is used as a stimulus. A dog trainer will often use a shock collar for this purpose. The collar is equipped with an electrical shock mechanism that is activated by remote control. All the trainer has to do is push a button on the remote and an electrical shock is delivered via two electrodes on the collar. After several repetitions the dog associates the behavior with the shock. It becomes conditioned to discontinue the behavior. And Shamu is glad no one has found a shock collar big enough to fit him.

I use a shock collar as a prop in my presentations to help explain the use of aversive stimuli (pain or punishment) in the conditioning process. After one of my shock collar lessons someone in the audience came up to me and told me a story about his friend —we’ll call him Bubba — who encountered a problem while training his bird dog with a shock collar. It seems Bubba’s dog was not responding to the shock. He reasoned that either the shock collar was defective or the dog had developed a resistance to the shock, which will sometimes happen. This is not unusual. While aversive stimuli may be a powerful short term stimulus, animals may become desensitized to the pain.

Bubba decided to ask his wife of thirty years to help him test his collar. Yep, you guessed it, Bubba asked her to put on the collar and he would push the button on the remote to see if it was working. She agreed but asked if they might reverse roles. Why didn’t he put on the collar and she would operate the remote? Bubba, not being the sharpest knife in the drawer, agreed as long as she followed his instructions to the letter.

Bubba explained that he was going down into the pasture a couple of hundred yards and would be out of earshot, so he would signal when he wanted her to push the button. The signal would be waving his hands above his head in an abbreviated jumping-jack motion. “Anytime I wave my hands,” Bubba insisted, “you push the button. Understand?”

He strapped the collar on, cinched it up tight, marched off down into the pasture, then turned and waved his hands enthusiastically. His wife pushed the button and the shock collar worked all too well.

Upon being electrocuted (a non-lethal shock, of course, but nonetheless very stimulating) his muscles contracted violently. This caused him to throw his arms up into the air. Now he was waving his hands again but with even more enthusiasm. This was probably one part physiological response and one part a very desperate attempt on Bubba’s behalf to remove the collar.

Apparently Bubba’s long suffering bride had thirty years of frustration pent up inside and saw what might best be described as a window of opportunity. Mindful to follow Bubba’s instructions to the letter, she pushed the button every time he waved his hands.

It seems she kept Bubba dancing, and herself entertained, for quite some time.

Now, for the rest of the story as Paul Harvey would say. I never use a real shock collar in my presentations. I use what’s called a dummy collar.  Once a dog is effectively conditioned with a real shock collar, it can be replaced with a dummy. The dummy looks just like a real shock collar. There is only one small but very important difference — the dummy collar can’t shock the dog. But the dog doesn’t know that — so it behaves exactly as it has been conditioned.

I use this story to make a point. We humans are all wearing invisible dummy collars. Even though we may not be subjected to the “shock” of a real collar we are conditioned from infancy to respond to reward and punishment. The first word we heard and understood coming out of our parent’s mouths was, “NO!” This was accompanied with a slap on the hand — or our behinds. This was the first step in conditioning our behavior with the use of aversive stimuli (punishment, pain).

Your early developmental conditioning included stimuli that resulted in pleasure as well as pain.  If you were a good little boy or girl you were rewarded with a piece of candy, a cookie or a toy. Shades of Shamu.

The conditioning process continues through our childhood in our formal education and into adulthood as we enter the workforce. By the time we reach legal age we are well trained animals.

Pavlov’s Humans

Behaviorism is a theory asserting that psychology is essentially a study of external human behavior rather than internal consciousness and desires. While most of us are familiar with Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov’s experiments in conditioning (Pavlov’s dogs) it was the American psychologist, B.F. Skinner, who stressed the similarities between human and animal learning processes. Skinner and other behaviorists associated an arbitrary action (such as an animal pressing a lever) with a reward (presentation of food) or a punishment (an electric shock).

We humans are trained just like any other animal using reward, punishment or combinations of the two.

We not only are trained like animals we also learn to play the roles of Siegfried & Roy. We graduate from trainee to trainer. Parents become master animal trainers. Teenagers are the ultimate test of their skills. And the most difficult of all tricks to teach the teenager is getting them to clean their own rooms. You’ve tried reward as a stimulus — only to discover you’ll go broke. You’ve tried punishment — but you can only ground them until they’re twenty-one.

In either case, you discovered that the motivation was short lived. Why? Reward and punishment are more manipulation than motivation. You have to continually provide the stimulus to get the response. And you always have to increase the degree of stimulation — more reward or more punishment — because humans, just like Bubba’s bird dog, become desensitized to the stimuli.

The real reason teenagers aren’t motivated to clean their rooms is because they see absolutely no purpose in it.  “Why should I clean my room? It’ll only get dirty again.”

Here’s the other side of this coin. One Saturday in April, when our son was a junior in high school, he washed, waxed and cleaned our car until it looked showroom perfect and you know why. It was prom night and he wanted to borrow the car. We didn’t have to reward him or punish him to do this because he had a purpose.

This leads us to the single most important principle I’ve discovered about human motivation: Without a purpose, our only motivation is reward and punishment. This is the fundamental tenet of Cowboy Psychology.

Why Are You Crossing the Road?

Let’s get back to the question of what separates us from other animals. We know why the chicken crossed the road. Now, let’s make it personal — why are you crossing the road? What’s your motive? Is it reward? Is it punishment? If so, you are no different than any other animal. You can be easily trained and manipulated. As your trainer all I have to do is to find the stimulus that corresponds to the response I desire to elicit. And whenever I push that button I can make you dance just like Bubba. I just need to find out what’s in your “schema.”

Schema is the root word of schematic. If you’re familiar with an electrical schematic diagram you know it’s basically a map that shows how something is wired. Schema is a term psychologists use to describe how you are wired. Your life’s experiences are stored in schemas that are like maps of the neurological pathways in your mind.

Once a schema is fully formed it becomes your dummy collar. It’s your filter for all incoming information. You do one of three things with incoming information filtered through your schemas. If it fits your schema you accept it. If it doesn’t fit you reject it or reshape it to make it fit.

Permit me to play the role of animal trainer and I’ll make you the subject of a little experiment. I’m going to strap a specially designed shock collar around your neck.  This collar will send signals to your schema. Imagine your schema as a motion picture archive where you can retrieve videos to play in your mental VCR. I’ve got the remote. I can push certain buttons that play certain videos in your mind’s eye that correlate to your past conditioning.

To manipulate you with reward and punishment all I have to do is find the right stimuli that appeal to your needs and fears.

What Are You Afraid Of?

We may be fearful of many different things but we all have five basic fears.

1. Fear of the unknown.

2. Fear of change.

3. Fear of failure.

4. Fear of success.

5. Fear of rejection.

What are you afraid of? Failure? Let me see — I think I’ll play a video clip from when you were in little league. You are up to bat in the bottom of the last inning, with the bases loaded. There are two out and your team is down by three runs. The eyes of everyone in attendance — no, the eyes of the entire world — are all focused on you. The count is three balls and two strikes. Here’s the pitch. It’s right down the middle of the plate. You swing — and miss. Game lost. As you walk back to the dugout you see the disappointment in your teammates’ eyes and hear the cheers of the opposing team.

How about fear of rejection? I’ll push the button that retrieves two video clips from your childhood. The first clip features your older sister, the darling of the world. It’s shot in Technicolor. She’s Miss Personality, the head cheerleader, the homecoming queen, the straight A student, and yada, yada, yada…

Now I’ll play a clip of you. It’s a low budget black and white film. You play the real life role of a shy little girl, a reclusive soul, who spends hours hiding out in her room, lost in the pages of one of the many books that keep her company. She finds solace and acceptance in this shadow land where the only other inhabitants are the fictional characters in the pages of her books. Here she can be Miss Personality, the head cheerleader, the homecoming queen and the straight A student. But just outside the door of her room, the inhabitants of the real world ignore her. She is a mere distraction at best.

These experiences are indelibly etched into your schema. I can push your buttons and you will emotionally and mentally flinch. Whenever you consider venturing beyond the boundaries of your fears, I can use them as effectively as a lion tamer armed with a chair and whip, and back you into your cage.

All of us have flashbacks when triggered by the right stimulus that are all too real and painful. These are effective tools in my arsenal of manipulation. There is a video clip for every one of your fears in your film archives. Some are horror films that feature full-blown phobias that are capable of paralyzing you. To manipulate you with fear in our experiment, all I have to do is find a clip of one of your fears and play it. Then I can use that as the stimulus for the response I desire from you.

OK, Enough of this punishment. There are endless examples of fears I could list. I could go on but I don’t want to be sadistic.

What’s Your Pleasure?

I have other ways to persuade you in our little experiment. Reward is a more pleasant stimulation, but just as manipulative in its effect. I’ll use it to appeal to the needs imprinted in your schema.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a hierarchy of human needs that is taught in every basic psychology course.  He divided needs into three major categories: Fundamental, Psychological and Self-Actualization.

The fundamental tier includes our most basic needs — food, shelter, sex and the need to feel safe, secure and out of danger.

The psychological category includes belonging: the need to affiliate with others and feel loved and accepted, and our esteem needs: achievement, competence and recognition.

The top rung of the hierarchal ladder is what Maslow called self-actualization — the need to fulfill our own unique potential.

It’s not hard to find stimuli that appeal to your needs. Television commercials are filled with them so I’ll use some for the next part of our experiment.

Some of the most creative ads on television are beer commercials.  They have featured ants, frogs, lizards and a guy that says, “I love you man.” But they rely on one tried and true stimulus they know will always appeal to the male psyche — women.  And not just any women — they all look like Cindy Crawford clones. And how are they dressed? Barely.

These commercials always include a little eye candy for the ladies, too. These bikini clad Cindy Crawford clones are playing volleyball on the beach with men who all look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Hey girls, this Bud’s for you.

The stimuli in beer commercials are aimed at your fundamental needs. They don’t sell beer by appealing to your thirst, they appeal to a more powerful appetite — sex. Does it work? Ask Anheuser Busch.

How about your need for security? Complete this sentence.  You’re in good hands with ________.  If you didn’t say Allstate you’ve been living on another planet. That slogan has been indelibly imprinted in your schema from years of advertising.

Any good life insurance salesman will come to your home, sit across from you at your kitchen table and paint a picture in your mind’s eye. It’s a picture of you — lying in your coffin. You are now having an out of body experience viewing yourself at your own funeral. And while you are admiring yourself resting peacefully in your Sunday best the salesman shocks you back to planet earth with this perfectly timed and delivered question, “In the untimely event of your death (I’ve always wondered when the “timely” event would be) would your family be cared for?” This is the stimulus. The response is your signature on the dotted line.

Maslow said that once our fundamental needs are met we move up the hierarchy to our psychological needs.  So what commercials appeal to our belonging needs? Would you believe McDonalds? McDonalds doesn’t sell hamburgers in their commercials, they sell the experience of going to McDonalds. They target different age and ethnic groups in different parts of the country. Their commercials feature little kids playing with Ronald McDonald. In Florida they put senior citizens in their commercials. In the southwest you’ll see Hispanics in their commercials and in areas with predominately African-American populations, they feature black people. Their message is clear.  It doesn’t matter if you are young, old, black, white or from another planet — you belong at McDonalds. If you don’t believe that, just try driving past the golden arches with the kids in the back seat — they’ll tell you.

Now, for our esteem needs. Nike commercials featured Michael Jordan performing superhuman feats.  How did he do it? It’s the shoes man, it’s the shoes. A pair of Air Jordans cost about $135. When I was a kid we wore U.S. Keds. I doubt my parents paid more than five bucks for my Keds. Do you really think kids can jump any higher in Air Jordans than they could in a pair of U.S. Keds? So why would anyone pay $130 more for Air Jordans? Because their commercials appeal to the need for achievement, competence and recognition. If we wear Nikes we’ll run faster, jump higher and be the envy of our friends — we can be just like Mike.

Are there any commercials that appeal to our need to self-actualize? In the past, commercials for the armed forces came to us via the U.S. Mail — we called it the draft. Today’s armed forces are all volunteers. To effectively recruit they must appeal to our highest need and their commercials accomplish just that. They are filled with star-spangled stimuli that make us want to — in the words of the Army — “be all that we can be.”  “Be all that you can be” is simply a paraphrase of our need “to reach our full potential.”

The Marines have more special effects in one sixty-second commercial than the entire Star Wars trilogy. My favorite was one that opened showing only the sweaty, muscled arm of a blacksmith holding a piece of steel in his forge.  He pulls it out, lays it on the anvil, flattens it with his hammer and raises it up in the air. A laser beam comes out of nowhere to transform that piece of steel into a sword and the blacksmith into a cadet in his dress blues who looks like he could eat nails and spit out bullets.

Wouldn’t you like to be one of the few, the proud and the brave?

Well, I think you’ve had enough. My experiment is over. During our experiment, your mental VCR played clips stored in your schematic archives didn’t it? Fears and needs are imprinted in your schema and are associated with your life’s experiences. Our five senses become engaged when a stimulus connects with past experiences.  It is virtual reality. We relive these experiences in our mind’s eye. We respond physiologically to the imagined experience much like we would to the real experience.

To stimulate you to action using reward all I have to do is find out what your dominant need is on the hierarchy. If it is food, shelter, sex and/or security, all I have to do is appeal to your physiological (animal) needs. If you are all about relationships, I appeal to belonging. If you are a high achiever I can appeal to your esteem needs.

As you move up the hierarchy you become more human. But what about your superhuman? What stimulus appeals to him?

Wouldn’t you like to know how to be freed from the manipulation of reward and punishment? Are you tired of responding like other animals to the stimuli that constantly appeal to your needs and fears? Are you ready to liberate the superhuman that is held captive inside your animal body?

Then you’ll want to learn how to walk upright in a four-legged world. I’ll show you how in the next chapter.

The Transformational Power of Purpose: Finding & Fulfilling Your Purpose in Life contains exercises at the end of each chapter that will help you find your purpose in life and set you on the path of its fulfillment.

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