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Park Talk

10th March 2015

The National Park goals of conservation, visitor experience and sustainable communities are best achieved by people altering their behaviour and we need to focus on things and places where we have the power to make change happen.

We can compare how our brain works with a wee mahout – an elephant driver – riding on an elephant. The elephant is the unconscious or emotional part of our brain. The wee mahout is the conscious or rational part. Most of the time, the mahout is in charge and together they get lots done.

However, from time to time the elephant sees a tasty morsel in the grass or gets the notion that a tiger might be lurking nearby and the rational mahout has no chance of controlling his very large friend. Elephants are not easy to train! Patience, regular reminders and incentives are required. Punishments are rarely effective.

So be honest! On a whim, have you purchased something that, although you persuaded yourself into buying it, on reflection, deep down you realised with some guilt that you didn’t need or even really want it and now there is less money for the essential household bills? Was this a rational decision or were you grabbing a tasty morsel? Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance – people knowing the right thing to do but seeking to justify their actions to lessen their discomfort. We can discover much about our behaviour through this simple analogy. Take dog walker behaviour for example.

Come spring more people go walking in the Cairngorms National Park. Every year, as long as I can remember, rational messages are put out asking people to behave responsibly, especially if they have a dog, because they may encounter young wildlife and farm animals like lambs.

So you might think countryside users in the Park would heed such regular and common sense messages. Most do, after all people don’t think to go out with the intention of causing a problem. But you can be sure, as with shopping, a diet, smoking or health, the elephant does occasionally take charge. Incidents will happen because – for some people research suggests – the status of the dog is near that of a family member and they will reach for various justifications or excuses including:

  • I’ll make sure it never happens again, it’s just their instinct
  • My dog is really very well behaved and friendly
  • I didn’t think there was any wildlife about
  • My dog needs to run about off the lead to be properly exercised

Dog walkers are fond of their animals and don’t respond well to criticisms of them. So the message for Park dog walkers in 2015 might be ‘Dogs will be dogs – so be a responsible owner and make sure the elephant doesn’t take over!”