Fixed Action Patterns: Why You’re as Predictable as a Turkey

Have you ever been persuaded to purchase something that you later regretted? A fixed action pattern probably influenced you. Have you ever been manipulated into contributing money to a charitable cause that you didn’t actually support? Again, this is another fixed action pattern example.

Fixed-action patterns are the mental shortcuts and assumptions that we use to fill in the blanks of our everyday experience. They are also known as modal action patterns. A lot of persuasion rests on the manipulation of human fixed-action patterns.

Learn about fixed action patterns in humans and how they make us like turkeys.

What Is a Fixed Action Pattern?

Every day, we are bombarded with advertisements and appeals that target fixed action patterns in humans. They ask us to buy something, join some organization, or get involved in some cause. Clearly, there is great advantage in using fixed action patterns to persuade people to do things.

But who are these persuaders and how are they so effective at manipulating us into doing what they want?

Compliance Practitioners

A compliance practitioner is anyone whose job is to get you to say “yes” to what they’re offering. They can be:

  • A salesperson who wants you to buy her product.
  • An activist who wants you to volunteer for her cause.
  • A fundraiser who wants you to donate to her charity.
  • A politician who wants you to vote for her.

Their specific agendas may be different, but they’re all after the same thing. They’re all in the persuasion business and they all want to persuade you. How do they do this? By manipulating the modal action patterns that get you to say “yes” before you even consider the consequences.

How Humans Are Like Turkeys

A brief fixed-action pattern example will illustrate what we mean. Turkey mothers are known to be caring and protective of their young. But what animal researchers have discovered is that the turkey mothers’ nurturing modal action pattern is triggered by a “cheep cheep” noise that the turkey chicks make. This noise is the mother’s signal to care for the chicks. Remarkably, however, the mother will neglect to care for the chicks if the latter fail to make the “cheep cheep” noise.

Researchers further discovered that these same maternal instincts can be triggered by man-made replicas of animals other than turkeys (even natural predators), as long as the replicas make the same “cheep cheep” noise. This is a classic fixed-action pattern example: a sequence of behaviors that consistently happen in the same way and in the same order. Behavior A (the “cheep cheep” noise) can always be counted on to produce Behavior B (the nurturing behavior) every time.

But it turns out that we humans aren’t so different from turkeys. We have our fixed-action patterns too. Like clockwork, we will behave the same way in response to the same stimuli. Compliance practitioners are experts in exploiting fixed-action patterns in humans: they know exactly which inputs to use in order to produce the outputs that they want from us.

Mental Shortcuts

You might be thinking that fixed-action patterns are a bad thing for human beings to have, that they’re some design flaw in our cognitive wiring. But they’re not.

In fact, fixed-action patterns are essential for human beings to process and order all of the information in our world. Think of human modal-action patterns as mental shortcuts. We could never individually assess every aspect of every situation we encountered, even in the course of a normal day: it would lead to mental overload and an inability to make any decisions at all. 

This is why general categories are useful. You can’t examine the properties of every blade of grass before you walk across a field or measure every grain of sand before you walk across a beach. We need some way to aggregate all of this information and distill it down to general rules of behavior that inform our responses to situations.

This is the power and utility of fixed-action patterns. They fill in the blanks for us so that our brains don’t need to overload.

As the world becomes even more complex and we have access to more and more information, fixed-action patterns in humans will become more important than ever. The more information we need to process, the more we’ll rely on mental shortcuts.

Short-Circuiting the Shortcuts

The problem, then, isn’t that we have these mental shortcuts. It’s that compliance practitioners have become skilled at exploiting them for their own advantage. In doing so, they pull a trick on us: compliance practitioners short-circuit our mental shortcuts by getting us to behave the right way in response to the wrong stimuli. 

Here’s a fixed action pattern example. Most people’s instincts would tell them that a higher-priced item is more valuable than a lower-priced item. And the vast majority of the time, this instinct would lead you to the correct conclusion: pricey items generally are expensive because they’re rarer or higher quality. But this instinct can also be exploited by clever salespeople. The book shares the story of an antique shop owner who raised the prices of an item that had previously been selling poorly. Within a day, customers had bought every unit!

These customers weren’t drawn to the item because they knew it was better or rarer. They were relying solely on the big price tag to guide their behavior, reasoning, “It must be good if they’re charging this much for it!” Thus, the shop owner was able to manipulate the customers into doing what their instincts told them to do, but for the wrong reason (the item wasn’t really valuable or rare): not all that different from a turkey.

Fixed Action Patterns: Why You’re as Predictable as a Turkey

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