The lessons found in the traffic light

Friday, August 16, 2013, Vol. 37, No. 33

Most traffic lights use a three-color system – red, yellow and green – in an attempt to control the flow of traffic through an intersection. Red, in this case, is the traffic light color that instructs moving vehicles to stop. This seems to be a simple system, and it is simple on the surface.

However, have you ever really thought about why most people stop at a red light? Does the color, in this case redness, make them stop? Does the light behind the red lens make them stop? How about the pole holding the traffic light, does it make drivers stop? It must not be any of these things; although all of these things are often present, the fact is, some drivers still do not stop.

Probably the closest you can get to answering the question of why drivers stop when they see a red light is: people only stop if, and when, they choose to stop.

So, in the end it is the driver’s choice to stop ... or not. The red light is only an external triggering event that prompts the driver to think about the consequences of stopping or not stopping and then make a choice. The red light has no inherent power or ability to stop anyone or anything.

Another factor that comes into play in this process of stopping people with a powerless red light has to do with the timing of the consequences. If you run a red light, the negative consequences can occur almost immediately. In other words, you might collide with a person going through the same intersection choosing to go on a green light.

I think several lessons are imbedded in the “why stop at a red light” story. However, let’s focus on one aspect of this story – the timing of the consequences.

When the consequences are immediate, you are more likely to pay attention and factor them into your choice. For example, many people are fully aware of the almost certain negative consequences of smoking. However, it is most likely that they will not have to “pay the bill” for smoking in terms of the health consequences until some distant future date. So, they light up, have another cigarette, and don’t worry about it. What if every time they made a choice to smoke a cigarette, they knew it might be the tipping-point cigarette that would trigger cancer almost immediately? What if, like running a red light, they might immediately suffer significant negative consequences of smoking that particular cigarette?

Typically if someone asks you at the beginning of your day what you are going to do that day, you reply with a list of tasks, meetings and so forth and so on. Here’s another valid response: “Today I am going to make choices all day long.”

If you want to make better choices, personal or career, think about the consequences of each choice in terms of the red light analogy. What if the consequences of this choice occurred immediately?

Chris Crouch is CEO of DME Training and Consulting and author of several books on improving productivity. Contact him through