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DON'T READ THIS ARTICLE: How the Mind Understands Instructions

by Frank Young Ph.D.

Well I'm glad you are enough of a rebel to go beyond the first part of the title. Or perhaps you have a compulsion to follow through on reading any line or, as I hope, an intense attraction to know how we understand and follow commands and instructions. Thank you for continuing to read this. Please do not leave the article too soon, because there are subtle nuances to the main theme that will make it worth reading for the details, especially the practical applications of theory in everyday living.

First, let's retest the theory. Are you ready? Okay, whatever you do in the next moment, do not think of a pink elephant. As you can see, this impulse is not borne out a perverse sense of disobedience, but because of how the brain processes language and images. That is, we have ingrained programming to make a picture or concept of an instruction or command sequence.

Whenever a negative comes first, such as the word "DON'Tů" the mind automatically tries to understand in positive terms the action referred to in the command. By the time this happens, often in only an instant, the brain has imprinted and sometimes begun the prohibited action.

Sport situations. The results can be disastrous in crucial sports situations if an athlete says to himself "Don't drop this pass!" "Don't miss this shot!" When the stakes are high, and cost of an error is huge, we tend to focus our attention on the avoidance of that error. At that point, we are no longer playing to win. We are playing to avoid losing. Performance anxiety often overly narrows inner focus and causes overly rigid and stereotypic behavior, so that sometimes we can inadvertently do the very action we are trying to prevent.

Of course, the same error can happen in other game situations, and even practice. A squash player I was working with asked, "How come when I say to myself 'remember to not hit the tin' (put the ball out of bounds) I wind up hitting the tin on the next shot?" The mind remembers the positive image, and drops the negative qualifier 'not' and the body executes the imaged action automatically, and sometimes repeatedly, as frustration further imprints the negative action image.

Management. The same thing happens in child rearing. "Watch what you're doing! Don't spill that milk!" Parents know how often those warnings backfire. Also, in many situations where managers attempt to lead their subordinates with prohibitions, cautions, and warnings, they often encounter natural consequences that seem to be insubordinate or rebellious. Their misinterpretation of this phenomena only adds to their difficulty in business relationships.

The way out of the box. Thankfully, there is an easy solution to this problem. It is the installation of positive instruction that is a behavior that contradicts or inhibits the mistake. In other words, restate a negative instruction in positive terms and images. Hold back on instruction until you have found a positive wording to express it. This may take some practice if you are in the habit of warning or caution in your instructions to yourself and others. It may also involve planning and imagination. You may need to invent oversimulation or overcorrection drills to retrain bad habits. Here are some examples:
  1. A skiing student keeps catching his uphill edge, leading to some nasty falls. An example of a positive correction might be, "On the next few runs, I would like you to practice lifting the tail of your uphill ski whenever you are traversing. That way you will establish the habit of keeping your weight forward and over your downhill ski."
  2. A basketball player keeps overshooting his free throws on foul shots. A possible remedy is "Before and during your shot, focus all your attention on the front top string in the net, and aim to drop your shot right on top of it."
  3. Clumsiness and spilling by children at the dinner table could be reduced by asking them to "move your hands more slowly whenever you reach for things on the table."
Now it's your turn. Think of at least 3 situations where you typically give yourself or someone else a negative instruction or a caution. Now invent a positive rewording of that instruction to encourage focus on a corrective pattern. That's it! That is all you have to do. The trick is to implement this habit in almost all of your self-talk and instructions to others. This is a vital habit in coaching leadership.

The structure of worry. There is another more important area of application of the skill of positive restatement of warnings or cautions, and that is in the realm of stress management and happiness generation. From the research literature, we know that worry is primarily an auditory phenomenon (Segerstron et al., 2000). That is, what gives us grief and anxiety is mostly the negative things we say to ourselves about our situation, our potential, our abilities, and our future. Cautions and self-commands fit in the structure of worry about future mistakes and the negative outcomes that may follow them.

A corrective path. Alternatively, if we visualize an alternative and corrective path to a future situation, we have already shifted mostly out of the auditory cortex and into the visual and spatial areas of the brain. Panic and worry diminish, and we come to focus on a way through the forest of challenges we are about to face. Self-instruction in a positive and encouraging way is also a habit that increases endorphin flow, engagement, and purpose, elements noted by researcher Martin Seligman (2002) in his treatise on the field of happiness promotion and mental fitness.

Don't forget to refrain from remembering the ultimate effect of negation is confusion. Whenever there is a negatively-formed command or instruction, there is an extra layer of meaning that introduces confusion as the mind tries to unravel the process of interlocking negatives to create the final interpretation. This is an extra and unnecessary process in communication. Therefore, to make sure your message is heard and understood, do this instead:

Resolve that from now on you will translate all instructions into a positive format. That's all you need to do, and then you don't even have to remember that you read this article.


Segerstrom, S. C., Tsao, J. C. I., Alden, L. B., & Craske, M. G. (2000). Worry and rumination: Repetitive thought as a concomitant and predictor of negative mood. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 24, 671-688.

Seligman, M. E. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York: Free Press. 321pp.


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