How To Stop Your Habitual Knee-Jerk Reactions

19 Apr 2017

How To Stop Your Habitual Knee-Jerk Reactions

This is Shaggy, my parrot

You may already be wondering what Shaggy has to do with your habitual knee-jerk reactions. Well, quite a lot. Shaggy has been trained using simple stimulus/response (also called operant conditioning) techniques which, in NLP terminology is called anchoring.

And so have you!
Anchoring. Shaggy, my parrot, eating a corn chip.

Shaggy, enjoying a corn chip.


I reckon Shaggy’s brain is about the size of a large pea. Despite this apparent handicap, he’s learnt many tricks easily and quickly.

And then he began training me.

As you read this article, I want you to think in a bigger way

Please don’t think that this is just an article about training a parrot. It’s not; it’s about you and how you learn. It examines how you learn positive and negative behaviours and how those behaviours get anchored into place. As you read, remember your brain is much bigger than a pea. Use it to think through how your automatic reactions are triggered (positively and negatively) and how you can choose a different response.

My lounge room is scattered with little sticks

Cotton reels, balls with bells inside and other parrot sized paraphernalia litter the carpet. These are Shaggy’s sticks and toys. There’s an interesting story as to how they all ended up on the floor, a story that you can also apply to your life.

When I came to live in Raglan, I was dog-less for the first time in many years. There was just Shaggy and me. It took him five minutes to learn a high five (or a high four to be precise, since parrots only have four toes). I decided to use a clicker to teach him some tricks.

A quick background to clicker training

A clicker is a small device that makes a clicking sound. The sound is used to signify the precise moment when an animal performs a wanted action; to ‘mark’ a behaviour. It gives the animal information that the behaviour done at the time of the click is what’s wanted. For a clicker to be a useful training tool, every time the trainer clicks she must reward the animal. The reward is usually a small food treat as it’s quick and easy to deliver and is something the animal likes.

At this point, a click signifies ‘that’s right’ as well as, ‘a treat is on its way.’

Because Shaggy is small, I used either a sunflower seed or a tiny bit of a corn chip whenever he got something right. I was anchoring the behaviour I wanted.

He quickly learnt to touch a ball with a bell in it. Click – corn chip. Then I extended the training, so he had to pick up the ball for a click/treat. Next trick was to get him to bring the ball to me to get the click/treat. Then take the ball through a tube and bring it to me. Then I moved on to sticks (because I still didn’t have a dog)!

The sticks are far longer than the width of the tube that Shaggy was taking the ball through. But being clever this was no obstacle; he simply turned his head so the stick would go into the tube and then he ran through the tube with the stick and brought it to me. All good so far — what a clever parrot! Here’s the result of that anchoring.

Shaggy then apparently decided to train me

Corn chips come in those noisy, crinkly plastic/foil bags. And if you haven’t noticed there are an increasing number of products packaged in this type of bag. He quickly made the leap of consciousness required to generalise that treats come in noisy packaging! (He’s now become anchored to noisy packets!)

Of course, most things that come in noisy packaging are completely unsuitable as bird food/treats. However Shaggy, with his little bird brain decided that if he wanted whatever was in the noisy packaging, he would need to bring me a stick – because obviously, I love sticks so much that I will reward him for bringing them to me!

He’s now anchoring me to giving him things in noisy packages!

What happens when I don’t give him what he wants?

Then he’ll bang the stick on the sides of his cage, and finally climb to the top of the cage and sling the stick onto the floor in disgust.

Some of the food I eat is very suitable for parrots. Most fruit and vegetables, seeds and nuts are all perfect for parrots. So the next thing he did was to pay very close attention to what I was eating, particularly if it sounded crunchy or nutty! As soon as he hears or sees something he wants, he grabs something from his box of toys to bring to me. Once again they end up slung from the top of the cage onto the floor if he doesn’t get what he wants.

The behaviour has now evolved even further

He uses sticks when he wants my attention as well as when I open something in crinkly, noisy packaging, as well as when I’m eating something he wants. He’s frequently disappointed. He also brings sticks or some other toy to give to visitors, throwing them on the floor, so they’ll pick them up and interact with him or play tug-o’-war with him. Several recent visitors spent over an hour engaging with him in this way – so clearly it works!

How does this apply to you?

If you have any pets, you’ll know that certain of your habitual behaviours result in anchored responses from your pets. Common among these might be picking up your keys or the dog lead and finding the dog gets excited about going for a walk.

What are your children or partner anchored to?

What are you anchored to? We’re all anchored to numerous situations, words, behaviours, etc.

It’s useful to think about this, because not all anchors are positive.

Common anchors are expressions on others faces, certain tones of voice, a particular touch. You might also be anchored to time (for example lunch or dinner time, finishing time at work, etc.) to smells (e.g. the Dentists office) and tastes. Your responses, both positive and negative will be consistent and automatic.

The bathroom towels example

One client had an extremely adverse reaction to seeing wet bath towels on the floor in the bathroom. Her response was a little over the top to start with and got worse because the culprit, her son, realised it upset her. He’d adopted a habit of leaving towels on the floor as his way of getting back at her for nagging him and not listening to him. She had trained him, unintentionally, to leave towels on the floor. They were both negatively anchoring each other — pushing each other’s buttons!

Recognising what stimulates or triggers your responses is the first step to changing your reaction

When you can identify the trigger, you can do something to stop the knee-jerk reactions and begin to choose your response instead. And this, in itself starts to lessen the impact the trigger has on you. By my client paying careful attention to what her son was saying and responding appropriately, he no longer felt the need to wind her up by leaving towels on the bathroom floor.

Watch Sheldon modifying Penny’s behaviour in the Big Bang Theory
What winds you up?

Think about what knee jerk reactions you habitually have. How have you trained people or animals (intentionally or unintentionally) to behave the way they do?

What can you do to change your own negative reactions, so you get different responses?

While you’re pondering the answers to those questions, I’ll just go and pick up the sticks and toys that are cluttering up the lounge – again!

Here are some ways you can find out more about anchoring and how it might be affecting you: