Rats, Research and Repetition

Rats can teach humans something about communications. Rats, like humans, are wary of anything new, so the best communications should be on familiar turf.

Rats can teach humans something about communications. Rats, like humans, are wary of anything new, so the best communications should be on familiar turf.

Rats are an invaluable research tool. We usually think of them as stand-ins for humans on early clinical trials for new drugs or procedures. But maybe rates also can gives us clues on communications.

At least Clark Hays, an author and recovering cowboy, thinks so.

In a LinkedIn blog post, Hays says rats are extremely nervous about anything new, which they fear could be dangerous or fatal. "They restlessly, obsessively patrol their environment in search of new things, then studiously avoid those things until they are sure they aren’t dangerous or toxic (lessons learned, probably from living alongside trap- and poison-happy humans)."

People, Hays adds, have a similar reaction to new things. That's why, he suggests, familiar communications channels – newsletters, emails and meetings – have a residual value. People know what to expect.

Hays made his observations in regard to internal communications. That could just as easily apply to external communications. He talks of culture and consistency as guideposts for communications. Audiences are more likely to listen in customary places and absorb information that falls within the frame of their culture.

Too often, Hays writes, communicators are tasked with changing cultures. What they are really asking, he says, is to change how culture is discussed. "Truly changing a culture requires identifying and eliminating or minimizing negative traits and rewarding and amplifying positive traits, and closing the gap between words and actions." Treading on familiar ground can be a safer platform to explore a new frontier.

Hays says humans can take a lesson from "ratricide," where one rat or a group of rats is shunned by the larger group. "Rats, like humans, are highly social creatures and social exclusion can prove, quite literally, fatal for rats. Even with no obvious physical injuries, some rats shunned by their peers seem to simply lose the will to live and soon waste away."

"Communications are how humans stay connected – sharing words, thoughts, stories, dreams, fears and more," Hays observes. "Without those connections, we suffer."

"Professionally, that holds true within organizations, where lack of considerate, consistent and creative communications can rightly be considered a form of social exclusion," Hays says. "While not fatal, poor communications can lead to apathy and disengagement that undermine efforts to create a vibrant community, linked to a healthy culture and focused on achieving desired results. And that is fatal for an organization."