The psychology of film & TV, media, & work

Tag archive


#staythefhome Why people don’t follow rules even in a pandemic

in Editor Pick by

Ever noticed that it’s always a ‘Top 10’ list and never a Top 11 or 9? Perhaps there’s something instinctive about a Top 10 that is buried deep in our psyche? Top 10s might relate to this old story (or history?) where God gave us the Top 10 rules of horrible things to avoid at all costs: The 10 Commandments.

But before you exit this blog out of fear Dr Duck has suddenly become evangelical, you don’t have to be all that religious to know about the Big 10. The 10 Commandments have been popularised in cinema, television shows. You’ve no doubt heard of them. If not, don’t worry. Most of them are mirrored in laws practiced all over the world.

There’s a couple on the list we all think are rather sensible, like not killing or stealing. In modern laws, we’ve even upgraded these basic rules to entertain circumstances some of these things aren’t too bad if, say, someone is trying to kill you or if you are starving. 

The purpose of these doctrines, whether they are written in bibles, enshrined in laws, or simply scribbled on bits of paper over kitchen sinks in office buildings (PLEASE clean up after yourself!), is ultimately to discourage behaviours we don’t like.

And, let’s face it, no matter what penalties are put in place, they are never 100% effective. Even the prospect of being executed does not completely deter people from murder. Sometimes people even go on to commit more than one murder. Why is that?

The biggest issue with rules is that many seem to think that simply drafting a list of rules and communicating them is enough to bring about changes in behaviour. But this is almost never the case. Yet, we keep doing it.

Throughout my career, I have noted constant annoyance, anger and fury over individuals doing ‘stupid things’ and working around the system of rules. When rules don’t seem to work, we seem to think adding more will resolve the issue because it worked so well the first time…right?

Today, we are witnessing an endless series of new rules introduced in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Many rules are followed. Some are bent. And some are broken.

Social media has run rampant with vilifying individuals, workplaces, families, travellers, politicians, and medical professionals for failing to follow rules or address rule breaches. Hashtags like #staythefhome—censored here—are expressions of this frustration with others.

And almost every other week, more rules are put in place to address the gaps in previous rules, which were in place to address foundational practices, which were probably full of holes in the first place.

But given that rules almost always fail, why do we rush to implement them as a first course of action? In light of the Top 10 theme of this blog, I couldn’t help put my own ‘Top 10 Rule Commandments’, which can be used to make a more effective rule.

Commandment #1. When in doubt, don’t create a rule at all.

How many of us enjoyed the rule ‘eat everything on your plate or no dessert’ when growing up? How well do your kids like it? In the Western World, one of our biggest issues is overeating so it’s always puzzling why we are so fixated on ensuring our kids don’t undereat.

Rules are the bluntest tool to modify and shift behaviour. They aggravate people, reduce autonomy, and often need to be monitored with applied punishment when the individual fails to comply. They also frustrate the person who writes the rules and the rule followers as well (#staythefhome!).

In the short-term they often just lead to resentment amongst all those involved.

Commandment #2. Remove the problem through design not instruction.

In our office building, there was a door to access the suites upstairs that was always being left open at night by accident. Because it was always propped open during the day, the last person to leave would often wander out, forgetting to close it out of habit. This continued to happen time and time again even though the landlord insisted that all tenants must follow the door closing procedures!

A year of reinforcing the door closing policy failed until a locksmith was brought in to install a door closer. There was never another incident after that.

This problem is common. We avoid a simple solution perhaps because it costs more or feels heavy handed. We underestimate the time, effort, cost and frustration of implementing new rules and procedures.

Often a simple design or technology solutions that can eliminate the risk more elegantly and remove the need to constantly reinforce the same message.

Commandment #3. Pitch the rule at the right level.

A classic issue with rules is over-prescription—where the user is not allowed to use judgement but are instructed exactly how to do everything. When COVID-19 virus hit in 2020, countries created shopping lists of ‘Do Nots’ to prevent the spread of the virus.

The problem with these lists is that there is always something left off and because we have assumed and reinforced to the person that they cannot use their own judgement, the absence of a prohibition becomes an excuse to do something risky.

Commandment #4. Harmonise the rules.

Over time, it becomes essential to examine where the various rules become too exhaustive that even the most diligent, law abiding person would fail to meet all of them. I once worked with the Victorian Road Rules expert who had a deep knowledge of almost every road rule. This expert couldn’t even remember every rule so it’s pretty unlikely the average person could or should.

In many instances, new rules are written on top of an older one that overlaps with another and so on. Harmonising means cutting the rules right back to a set of mutually exclusive ones that produce the same result in fewer numbers. This means they’re easier to communicate, remember, and follow.

Commandment #5. Consider the user’s motivation to follow the rule.

Ultimately what we end up doing each day depends on how motivated we are. When we are highly motivated to achieve a goal, it takes considerable force to prevent us from pursuing it, especially when the goal is clear, rewarding, and attainable.

In the COVID-19 world, people have been genuinely furious with others who have gone to work sick, sometimes knowing they have been infected. But what motivates a person to clearly do something so risky? As frustrating as it may be, for many people the motivation to earn money and support a family trumps most other things, including viruses.

The prospect of getting a serious illness will not feel likely to many. Instead, it’s likely to be a vague threat. In contrast, feeding and supporting a family, paying the rent, or buying food is a highly salient goal and difficult to counter.

Where a motivation is so strong, the penalty needs to be an almost equal and opposite force. Otherwise, investment into a desirable alternative should be considered, such as incentives to experiment with the preferred behaviour (e.g. staying at home).

Commandment #6. Don’t be petty.

When the umpire in a tennis match oversees the various rules, some flexibility is needed. Occasionally, a player takes a bit too long between sets, allowing them time to rest and recover. In some situations, the umpire warns the player and they quickly jump back into action. In other situations, the umpire can more precisely apply the rules to the second. To do so would be more accurate but would also lead to a constant string of warnings, fines, and frustrated players.

Similarly, recent COVID-19 lockdowns saw a series of penalties applied in lower risk situation, such as a daughter practising driving with her mum. Technically, this was non-compliant with rules but also not really doing much harm either. Being overzealous with the rules can undermine good will and spread word of mouth that undermines the same rules in a more serious context.

Commandment #7. Utilise social rules / norms instead.

I have found recent trends for workplaces to apply unlimited personal leave to be intriguing. This approach is essentially a ‘no rules’ approach to personal leave, in line with Commandment #1. However, the reality is that the rule ‘unlimited leave’ is really just replaced by a social rule ‘take as much leave as you feel you deserve’.

In these instances, the social rule is stronger because failing to follow social norms leads to feelings of anxiety and shame. A rule like unlimited leave could paradoxically lead to employees feeling implied pressure to work more and demonstrate their work ethic. So, social norms are often a good place to start when trying to change behaviour in the long-term.

Commandment #8. Give the rule a purpose for the user.

There is no shortage of dumb rules. My favourite one is where a service provider states it’s their internal ‘policy’ that prohibits them from doing something sensible, like call you over the phone to resolve an issue. This rule is basically designed to cut down on phone call conversations and save money not because it service a genuine aspiration.

Commandment #9. Communicate the rule clearly.

If all else fails and you simply must introduce a new rule, then at the very least make it succinct and clear. How many times have you been caught out by a cryptic parking sign that seemed to allow parking for 1 hr only to learn that only on special occasions, at certain times, or under a full moon? There’s nothing more unfair than breaching a rule that you didn’t know was even there or one that somehow entrapped you to breach it!

Commandment #10. Always assume the rule will be broken.

The most common frustration of rules is when they are not followed. But even the harshest threats of punishment fail to stop rule breaches 100% of the time otherwise the electric chair would never need juice.

This Commandment is the most important, because if you are safeguarding a potential catastrophe, you also need to assume that someone is going to eventually circumvent the rule either on purpose or by error. The recent failure of quarantine in Melbourne is believed to be due to a breakdown in security protocol. Evidently, people disobeyed the quarantine rules and this led to an outbreak.

But if we followed the 10 Rule Commandments, we’d assume this was inevitable. We might question why we couldn’t design something to stop a loss of containment. We might also consider all the motivational factors, such as the need for human contact, and the removal of discomfort and frustration, as well as other things that could have prevented the incident.

Maybe even a simple door closer could have done the trick. Well, maybe a bit more than that but you get the point.

Weinstein, the Nazis and you

in Editor Pick/Media Psychology/Work Psychology by

In the red corner is Harvey Weinstein. Weighing in at over 250 pounds and a net worth of $250 millon. Nominated for over 100 awards, Academy awards winner, with an influence over some of the biggest names in Hollywood.

In the blue corner, every single person in society including: disgusted members of the public, former actors and actresses who knew directly or indirectly of his actions, assistants, victims of abuse, and almost every person in the media.

Each day, the number one story across the globe appears to be Harvey Weinstein. Yet another person comes out to share their experience. And, each day, commentators in the media and important global figureheads frown with disapproval. ‘Why would so many people stand by and let this happen?’ Indeed, if you weren’t confronting Weinstein, you have been dubbed an ‘enabler’.

The reason why the Weinsteins of the world do what they do without fear of retribution is something that has long been studied and understood by social psychologists. And it has to do with an anecdote about Nazis. Yep, our favourite real life and Hollywood villains.

Early studies in social psychology attempted to explain how seemingly normal people could commit atrocities, like the Nazis in World War 2. Were these people truly evil or placed in circumstances that made them do horrible things?

Many are familiar with the Stanley Milgrim experiments where under pressure students would administer seemingly painful electric shocks to other students. Some would do so even to the point of the other student screaming in pain. However, this was all a façade. Nobody was truly in pain. The study was simply examining whether a normal person would follow orders even in the face of cruelty.

Since these early experiments, social psychologists have demonstrated that people behave in peculiar ways when surrounded by others. For example, we are willing to ignore or downplay evidence so that we can maintain harmony with a group—groupthink. Some believe this can lead to catastrophic outcomes when risk is downplayed and overlooked.

Many of our phobias are related to how we are perceived by others. We may fear public speaking even though there is no true physical threat. Job interviews tend to be the more stressful than they should be. The first day of school or a new job are confronting experiences because of the unknown social aspect.

In public, we all instinctively conform to fit in with our surroundings. How many of you feel uncomfortable to hold a phone conversation on the train in the morning when everyone is quiet? How difficult is it to disagree with the majority in a workshop when it may mean slowing down progress or having to debate an issue?

It’s probably not too surprising to social psychologists that Weinstein was able to do what he did. Through his sheer physical size and powerful personality, he could intimidate. But he also has a ridiculous amount of money and influence from his position. If you’ve ever hesitated about speaking up on a workplace issue, then imagine how impossible it would be to challenge the might of Weinstein, surrounded by others who played along.

But, interestingly, research also shows how individuals can overcome intense social pressures. In one study, a participant was asked to judge whether a line was shorter, longer, or the same as another line. If they were placed in a room of people who purposely misjudged the length, the participant would also align their view with the rest of the group. However, if only one person disagreed, it was enough for the participant to feel comfortable to disagree.

Doesn’t this sound like what’s happening now with Weinstein? All it took was a few people to speak out to give others the confidence to do the same.

What we can learn from Weinstein isn’t just a lesson on morals, decency, and corruption. It is also a lesson on how we as individuals can fight the social current in any context and bring out change. You might even find people jumping in to support you.

Ding ding, ding!

Can you control the odd billion changes that are occurring right now?

in Editor Pick/Work Psychology by

In just one minute, 243,000 photos will be uploaded to Facebook. One-hundred and forty four people will move to a new home. Approximately 136, 824, 00 pounds of carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere.

You are changing constantly and so is everything around you.

Larger organisations are essentially all about responding to and enacting changes on a massive scale. In the face of these dynamic environments, we set up support structures to ensure that change can occur as cleanly and efficiently as possible. Buildings go up. Bridges are built.

It’s essential that there are dedicated people to help remove all obstacles so that people can focus on the changes that count.

Think about the challenges of a Human Resource team. New people enter organisations every week. Employees leave.

Human Resources need to ensure this occurs as effectively as possible whilst trying to work out what type of person they want to enter and which ones they want to retain, train, and how to go about building all the qualities we want in people.

You may believe the best approach to bringing this stability and achieving long-term success is to control things centrally, like a mother ship or a queen bee. To ensure consistency and compliance, everything goes through a controlled decision-making group.

This approach may involve enforcing the policies and standards and having final say on all capability decisions. If you tend to believe that change needs to be controlled, then you may prefer this centralised approach.

Think about the trusty ol’ iPhone. What if Apple adopted a centralised approach managing their customers?

What if they found ways to penalise you if you didn’t use this phone? What if after purchasing the phone, they told you there was a series of mandatory training programs you will need to attend before you can switch it on?

This may seem odd, but it’s essentially what organisations do everyday when we occupy a more centralised approach to managing change.

In contrast, you may believe that change needs to be embraced and that you are better off letting people surf the waves rather than restricting them in the swimming pool. You may, instead, give people the swimming lessons and surf board, and allow them to tumble off the surfboard from time to time.

If you hold beliefs that people need freedom and autonomy, therefore, you may prefer a decentralised approach to providing support. That is, you are there to enable and influence rather than ensure compliance.

This approach more closely aligns with a ‘customer service’ approach to support where you are essentially there to help people.

Take a safety support function that desperately wants to lower injury rates. Their tendency may be to initiate more standards, procedures, rules, and audits. The importance of their goal, after all, is something we can’t deny.

What if, instead, they adopted a decentralised, customer-centric approach? They could, for example, build resilience and motivation, which could help maintain alertness and situation awareness. This approach also has the benefit of being more flexible to the inevitable changes that surround us.

The centralised approach is too easy. We mandate a new rule then shake our heads in disbelief when these important rules are ignored or bent.

Of course, simply responding mindlessly to customers can be risky. A doctor, for example, who simply orders an operation that a patient demands is not really looking after their customer.

For internal support services, responding quickly and efficiently to customers can also mean that lots of new changes occur that create confusion and may not align with the broader organisational goals.

Ultimately, it probably boils down to what a customer needs rather than what a customer wants.

And now we’ve reached the end of the blog, just reflect on how much has changed.

About 116 people just got married. 58 airplanes just took off. About seven billion human hearts beat 500,500,000,000 times.

Mother ship, this is Dr Duck. How are we going to control all of this?



Last month, my colleague, Maurice Cristiano, and myself, conducted some research to find out some best practice thinking in regards to internal support services. The above is a bit of a summary of the views and advice of some experts we spoke to with a bit of my own interpretation and opinion mixed in.

We’d like to thank the following people for their insights. Please note that this blog does not necessarily reflect their views or the views of my workplace.

Marvin Oka – Behavioural Modeller, Keynote Speaker, Corporate Consultant

Dr Simon Moss – Senior Lecturer at Charles Darwin University

Peter Howell – Group Manager HR Operations at John Holland

Michael Ingpen – Business Analyst

Saiful Nasir – Lead Consultant – Business Process Management

Craig Roberton – Principal Consultant at RXP Services Ltd

Craig Skipsey – Evangelist at

Robert De Wet – Semi retired construction innovation and bid coach

Dr Fiona Kenvyn – Human Factors consultant

Chris Burton – Asia Pacific Learning Development Manager at TMS

Sara Pazell – Occupational Advisor: Human Factors & Ergonomics/Human Performance Technologist

Marigo Raftopoulos – CEO Strategic Innovation Lab

Why do we punish people?

in Media Psychology by

During the lead up to the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran there was public outcry. In one camp we had the calls for mercy. The punishment did not fit the crime.In another camp was the harsh view that they should have simply known better. And, of course, there was a third camp, people who could see both sides.

Perhaps it’s too obvious but how often do we stop and wonder why we punish people?

The motivation to punish is well ingrained from a young age. Parents instinctively use two broad approaches to modify their child’s behaviour. They can reward them for good behaviour or punish them for bad.According to a long line of research, it is believed that children go on to develop stable mental guides from their parents which help them to navigate through life.

When individuals do the wrong thing they eventually learn to punish themselves through emotions such as guilt and anxiety.

When an individual succeeds, he or she learns to reward themself with feelings of happiness and satisfaction. The emotional reactions are like surrogate parental figures who are always with you.

We also learn to instinctively apply these surrogate figures to others.

In our relationships we learn to punish others who have wronged us. In workplaces we learn to develop strict protocols and disciplinary actions for underperforming employees. We reinforce the same strategies with our children.

We also punish entire civilisations. After all, what was the Berlin Wall for if not a massive slap from a parental figure?

Of course, we also learn to reward others too. We embrace people for being kind and supportive. We give employees bonuses for good performance and we also praise our children for good behaviour.

If it was that simple, however, all we would have to do is reinforce good behaviour and punish bad.

But as we all know from experience it doesn’t seem to work that way.

Rewarding children with incentives like money, for example, has been paradoxically shown to lower their motivation to continue doing the task, called the overjustification effect.

Bonuses for employees can lead to unethical behaviour to claim this desirable reward.

Even capital punishment has not put a stop to drug smuggling.

Although punishment will deter many individuals, research also shows that there’s more to it than just deterrence. We also do it because we value retribution even if there’s no actual effect on deterring future behaviour.

The problem with this simplistic ‘carrot and stick’ approach is that we often don’t have a real idea of what we are truly rewarding or deterring. We don’t always stop to understand what truly motivates people.

When we scold a child for poor behaviour, we might be reinforcing their need for attention. When employees are reprimanded for breaching rules to get the job done faster, we may unintentionally be punishing them for coming up with new ideas.

When money is provided for hard work, we may be reinforcing the idea that the almighty dollar is more important than the value of the work itself.

What will the punishment of Chan and Sukumaran provide? Will it deter future drug smuggling? Will it reinforce a society’s appetite for retribution?

Read this blog!

in Work Psychology by


Now that I have your attention, can I ask if you will read this blog today? Now, go and make a coffee and think about it. The blog will still be here when you get back.

Ok, you’re still reading? It worked then? That’s ok, I know you didn’t really make a
coffee. You’re more of a tea person, right?

These somewhat trivial instructions can influence whether someone will modify their behaviour. Take a Stop sign. It doesn’t ask you to ponder whether you would like to stop. It just directs you to do so. And most of the time people comply. This kind of message is what’s referred to as an ‘imperative’.

But think about the kind of message you get on the back of a cigarette packet. It usually highlights a horrible disease you might develop as a result of smoking, getting you to ponder and make a choice. That is, it doesn’t simply say, ‘Stop smoking now,’ recognising that some behaviour is modified over time and needs to be sustainable.

These messages are called ‘interrogative’ because they rely on you taking more time to process the information.

A recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that people are more likely to follow the interrogative message when they have more time to think it through.

In one study they placed a sign next to a flight of stairs and set of escalators. Two
types of messages were posted. Pedestrians either saw the imperative message (‘Take the Stairs’) or interrogative message (‘Will you take the stairs?’).

At first it looked like the imperative message was more effective because more pedestrians took the stairs when they viewed this message. However, when the sign was placed further away from the escalator, to give more time for people to consider the message, they were more likely to use the stairs after reading the interrogative message.

The researchers suggest that when there is little time, direct messages are more
likely to be followed. However, when people have a bit more time to think, they
generally prefer instructions that invite autonomy and choice.

The point is that direct and blunt instructions may get people to act but they may be less inclined to follow these instructions when they have time to think it through. That is, people want some say in their destiny.

Stop reading now! If you want to…

Go to Top