Template Thinking

By Clem | In General Musings, Personal Training, Physiotherapy | on January 12, 2016

Another year rolls on, 2015 is consigned to history and 2016 approaches with promise. 2016 is an even number year. Scientific studies have shown that throughout history the years which are even number years traditionally have the least amount of natural disasters (Lies et al. 2016). This obviously is bullshit. Some of you may have read that sentence thinking it was true due to this blog usually being an evidence based blog and the fact that I put a fancy, obviously false, reference at the end.

People that know me will know I have a sometimes unhealthy appreciation for human behaviour. It can tend to rub people up the wrong way when I try and ask them questions to explain why they took a particular course of action but is always (well mostly always) in the pursuit of greater understanding…and occasionally taking the piss out of friends.

I have mentioned Robert Cialdini’s book; Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion a lot in the past. The book talks about the idea of social compliance and what factors or context may be required to make a human being comply with another human’s request, seemingly without much forethought. Cialdini labels the idea of a conditioned response as ‘Click, Whirr’. When a cue is presented, humans and animals alike feel compelled to complete an action that has, in the past been successfully paired with that cue.

This can be seen in a primitive sense in nature using the example of a mother turkey. Like most mothers, mother turkeys are extremely protective and caring. Mother turkeys however are very dependent on the ’cheep-cheep’ sound its chicks make. Chicks making that sound are A-OK. Chicks not making that sound will be ignored and sometimes even killed. Scientists called Animal Behaviourists have studied this behaviour and played around with it. A polecat represents quite a threat to a mother turkey and will usually be attacked if seen. A stuffed polecat was no different; all-out attack. When scientists place a recorder inside the stuffed polecat, playing the ‘cheep-cheep’ noise, the mother turkey took the polecat under her wing and cared for it like the others. Once this noise was turned off, mother turkey went batshit crazy at the poor toy again.


cheep-cheep…doesnt fool me


We see from this experiment that the mother turkey has an inbuilt auto pilot. When she hears a noise, she responds accordingly. This can be termed a fixed-action pattern. We see examples of this in everyday life too in both primitive (newborn baby palmar grasp reflex) and social manifestations (high price leading to the assumption of high quality).

The last few years have taught me the difference between learning what to do and learning why we do. Whether its relating to physiotherapy, personal training or life in general the difference between those two words is vitally important and is completely lost in so many people. I can give three very different examples in my life where I was guilty of ‘click-whirr’ behaviour.

What are you doing after the leaving?

When I finished my leaving cert as a fresh faced, follicly challenged, young lad many years ago, the inevitable question at that stage in life is what you want to be after the leaving. At that stage in life, I had never been in full time employment outside of summer jobs. My job experience choices were mostly determined by what part time job I could get which would pay me the most money. When it came to choosing a career it was largely based on money. What job do I want? What pays more and is realistic for me to attain? These ‘what’ questions were at the fore front rather than the more beneficial “why do I want this career path?”

What do I do with this patient when they have back pain?

Again, many years ago, working as a manual therapist in Ireland I demonstrated a lot of click-whirr behaviour. Lower back pain is a common complaint for a lot of those visitors to manual therapists. It was no different to the mother turkey scenario. I cared for my clients and my clients would exclaim ‘cheep-cheep’ at the ridiculous value I was giving them (sorry). My cue: lower back pain presentation. My reaction: give the client massage therapy due to its ‘success’ in the past. It worked so well for my patients that they always came back. I saw this as success and never thought to ask myself why I did it.

Are your manual therapy skills based on any scientific reason?

In my first day of my masters the head of the Physiotherapy course proclaimed from the top of the class that the evidence for the use of manual therapy to treat pain is very weakly supported in scientific literature. My cue here was my skills and background were being devalued and questioned. My reaction was defence and justification to try and prove the lecturer wrong and ensure I was right. A lot of us react in this way when challenged. I was no different back then and it’s a work in progress to improve this even now.


This is what I personally call “template thinking”. I saw it a lot during my Physiotherapy studies where students want to know what to do when they see a particular presentation. I would imagine those studying for personal training or strength and conditioning are the very same. As human beings we are much more comfortable when the question is “what do I do when the goal is this?” It makes us very uncomfortable when we are told the answer depends on context.

Click whirr behaviours allow us to sail through life on autopilot and this is not always a bad thing. Sometimes these behaviours can keep us safe from danger. When it comes to important decisions for us personally or for others however we should be aware that it could hinder progress.

These lessons may seem like common sense but we are all guilty of template thinking on a daily basis in our careers and personal life.

  1. As a physiotherapist, you must ask why this intervention benefits this person and what, if any, science is behind my thought process.
  2. As personal trainers we need to ask why I have programmed for this client in this way and why does this program relate to their goals.
  3. If someone questions your thought process, values or principles avoid reacting defensively and use it as an opportunity to crystallise your thoughts and shine a constructive light on aspects you may not have considered before.
  4. If you are choosing a rewarding career ask why this is for you and why you think you might be good at it? Traditional thinking determines good careers by the pay cheque. This is a consideration but should not be the most important one.
  5. More importantly, as a client of a personal trainer or physiotherapist try to avoid being the mother turkey when you listen to the ‘cheep-cheep’ of the authority on the subject. Do not be afraid to stop and ask why you are carrying out the orders/advice. Human beings are so varied and intricate that a one size fits all approach is very rarely effective.



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