Thoughts on Conditioning

Tuesday 6 December, 2011

Nearly all of us have experienced it. Some of us are in too much of a hurry to notice it. Of those who do become aware of it, a number dismiss it as being a little strange and think nothing more of it. But there is more to it. It is a testament to the power of conditioning and is known as the broken escalator phenomenon.

A Dutch friend of mine wrote about it last week in a national newspaper (for all Dutch speakers, you can find his article here). Reading it I was reminded of a conversation I’d had some months ago, in which I used this very phenomenon as an example of how easily we are conditioned. Put simply, it describes how, when you step onto an escalator which isn’t working, your body still behaves as though it is. When it doesn’t move you feel temporarily disoriented before regaining your composure. Depending on your previous escalator experience, the confusion may not appear until your second step because you may be used to your first contact initiating the movement.

Whatever our escalator conditioning, the bewildered feeling occurs even when we are well aware that the escalator is broken before we step onto it. It happens because we are so used to escalators moving. It’s how our relationship with escalators has always been and our behaviour is conditioned accordingly. Even if it does not register consciously, we still seem to have an unconscious aversion to a broken escalator. Watch how many people on the verge of stepping on to a broken escalator, stop, retrace their steps and take the adjacent stairs instead.

Such a refusal may have other reasons such as our unwillingness to use something defined as broken (even though, as my friend later pointed out, a broken escalator is still, at the very least, stairs); or it may be because escalators are steeper and their steps deeper than normal stairs (despite the height of the ascent being exactly the same). Or it may have to do with the fact that people don’t want to appear stupid in front of their fellow commuters by using a broken escalator. But there is still a part of me which thinks that a subconscious decision is being made to avoid the strange, disorienting feeling we experience as we step onto a broken escalator, because it is a challenge to our conditioning. A conditioning which does not allow us to adjust quickly enough to the new situation.

Here’s another example: I was talking to a woman last year during a training day and noticed how, although it was clear she was agreeing with me verbally, her non-verbal communication was quite the opposite. I knew that in Bulgaria the head movements for ‘yes‘ and ‘no‘ are the other way around to the convention with which I am familiar. I checked with her and indeed she was one of two Bulgarians in the group. In Bulgaria people nod when they mean ‘no‘ and shake their head when they mean ‘yes‘. It’s an example of cultural conditioning.

If you can’t find a broken escalator to step onto, try saying ‘yes‘ and shaking your head at the same time. Or saying ‘no‘ and nodding. It feels strange and irregular; like throwing with your non-throwing arm. And all because it is different to how we normally do things. Extend this assessment to your everyday behaviour and ask yourself how much of it is down to your conditioning? Would it feel strange if you were to behave differently? And if an escalator or a shake of the head can do this to us, what about the more powerful sources of conditioning?

Our behaviour has been instilled in us by our culture, imposed on us by society, passed down by our family and established by ourselves according to the script (TA) we have written. And until we examine it or are confronted with it, we will continue to behave in the same way because doing otherwise feels foreign and uncomfortable, and may well produce different results to those we are used to.

But our self-development is dependent on us examining our behaviour; understanding its nature and its origin; and then actively choosing to retain it, modify it or change it altogether. The next time you step onto a broken escalator, notice how it makes you feel and ask yourself: What are my other patterns of behaviour; where do they come from; and is there a better, more effective way? Maybe there is no better way. But then again, maybe there is.

Related article: Waarom voelt een kapotte roltrap zo gek?
Related posts: The Ivy Of Conditioning | Conditioning Controls the Mind | Cultural Conditioning

Leave a Reply