“Los arboles purifican al aire,” said the standard brown road sign on the side of the Pan American Highway heading south into Quito. We passed it so quickly I wasn’t sure what I’d seen. Trees purify the air? Then around the next curve came another: “No botar basura y escombros.”
Escombros, explained my driver in Spanish, are waste products from construction. The sign meant, “Don’t throw out trash or debris.”
Every kilometer or so, we passed another brown sign. The messages were different but the theme was clear. “Nature is life,” said one, “care for it.” “Water is life,” said another, “protect it.” “Nature is our lung” was followed by “Look after the trees.” Signs with at least a dozen different messages lined every Ecuadorian highway I traveled, from northern mountains to central coast.
I asked whether these signs had been in use for a long time. No, my driver told me. This was the work of President Rafael Correa. In his first term, Correa and his administration had rewritten the country’s constitution. Ecuador had become the first nation to constitutionally protect the rights of nature. The signs were simply part of the cultural change; of transforming words to deeds.
“En los Estados Unidos, no tenemos letreros como estos,” I said, finding my new Spanish words slowly. In the United States, we do not have signs like this. “Tenemos letreros que dicen…”
“MacBurgers!” said my driver, grinning and ending my sentence with the real name of an international fast food chain. In the United States, we have signs that say, MacBurgers!
“Y ‘Cerveza es la vida!'” I said. And beer is the life!
From Words to Action
Truth is, what we see and read every day matters. The more we are exposed to words, images or ideas, the easier it is for related words, ideas and – ultimately – behaviors to be evoked.
Our minds are “associative machines.”* Whenever we are presented with a word, image or even a partial idea, a complex set of responses occurs very quickly. This is called associative activation: ideas that have been called to mind trigger many other ideas in a cascading flow of activity in our brains. Each element is connected; it supports and strengthens the other. We don’t will it. We can’t stop it. And much of time, we’re not even aware it is happening.
Breakthroughs in measuring the mechanisms of this “associative machinery” happened only in the last few decades, but the deliberate manipulation of public consciousness rapidly accelerated around 100 years ago. Edward Bernays, a double cousin of Sigmund Freud’s, was the first to systematically use the discoveries of psychology to appeal to unconscious needs and maneuver the behavior of the public.** Bernays invented the term the “public relations” as an alternative to “propaganda.” He also developed a means of molding public opinion that he called, “the engineering of consent.”
Back in the U.S. at a recent conference, I spoke about these processes and about structuring the workplace, community environment or social movement to evoke and support the behaviors one wants to see. An audience member questioned whether it was “fair” for organizations or employers to influence thinking and behavior this way.
Fair has nothing to do with it. It is how the human mind works. The more we know about the workings of the mind, the more of ourselves we can bring under our own conscious control and the more safeguards we can put in place where conscious control is not possible. The real question is, do we want to ignore what is known about human cognition and behavior – and be subject to manipulation of biases and vulnerabilities in our automatic ways of thinking? Or will we embrace this knowledge and make use of its power?
Jody Alyn works with organizations that want to bridge gaps, solve complex problems and seriously improve results. She is pictured here with some trees in Machalilla National Park, near Puerto Lopez. Contact
This is the fifth post in a series. Read previous posts
* See Daniel Kahneman’s complete discussion of “the associative machine” and priming in his 2011 book, Thinking: Fast and Slow.
2 Responses to “Signs Along the Road”
Leave a Reply