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Reaction Time

Learning to respond in a new way

by Brian Radcliffe

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To consider how much we can control our reactions to challenging circumstances (SEAL theme: Self- awareness).

Preparation and materials

  • You will need a leader and one reader.
  • Have available the song ‘Changes’ by David Bowie and the means to play it at the end of the assembly.


LeaderWhat are your reactions like? If you smell a delicious meal, what happens?

Reader:I can feel the salivary juices building up inside my mouth.

Leader: If I jerk my finger towards your eyes, what happens?

Reader: I automatically blink.

Leader: If you are sitting down and I tap you just below the knee, what happens?

Reader: My knee jerks upwards.

Leader: All these are what we call 'reflex reactions'. This means, without thinking, our bodies react in a particular way in anticipation of danger, to protect us, or because we have reacted this way in the past to a pleasurable event. There's an obvious connection between the stimulus and the reaction.

Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who died on 27 February 1936. He made two important discoveries when it came to our reactions and responses.

He began by noting that dogs in his laboratory began to salivate not only when food was placed in front of them but also even when he or his assistants (who usually brought the food to the dogs) entered the room. This happened even when they had no food with them. He called this a 'conditioned response' - that is, 
one created as a result of a regular routine, what is expected.

Taking things a stage further, Pavlov then created a conditioned response that had nothing whatever to do with the food itself. Each time food was provided, he rang a bell. Eventually, even when no food was provided, even when neither he nor his assistants were present, if a bell was rung the dogs began to salivate. They had been conditioned or trained to respond in this way to the stimulus of the bell.

Now, let's return to our consideration of responses and reactions. We all have behaviour that occurs without thinking. The aroma of a certain type of food may remind us of a place we went to on holiday. A song played on the radio may remind us of a certain person.

Equally, in a crisis, some people fight and some flee. Others bury their heads in the sand and pretend that the thing never happened or will never happen.

If we're given a gift, we say, 'Thank you'. If someone hits us, we may hit back.

The responses we make in all these situations won't necessarily be the same for everyone. We have different personalities and our experiences of life are different, too. The question is, do we have to respond like this, for better or worse? Can Pavlov, or could God, open the way to us making a different kind of response?

What do I mean by this? When Jesus was on Earth, he talked about loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, giving our possessions to the poor, putting others ahead of ourselves, judging ourselves before we judge others. Very few of us would claim that these would be our natural reactions. We would be more likely to retaliate, be always on the lookout for something for ourselves, get to front of the queue, defend ourselves even when we know we are wrong. Yet, if we were to react as Jesus suggests, maybe the world would be a calmer, more forgiving, safer and better place to live. So, how can we change our reactions?

Pavlov's research suggests that it is possible to condition our reactions. By deliberately ringing the bell every time food appeared, the response of the dogs was altered.

Reader: That's all very well, but, I hope you've noticed, I'm not a dog! You don't train me to sit, fetch a ball or beg.

Leader: I accept that, but, nevertheless, we do have the freedom to choose to act in a certain way and, if we act in that way often enough, it can become an automatic reaction. For instance, if you're prone to answering back when someone antagonizes you, you've probably been given a common piece of advice.

Reader: Do you mean count to ten?

Leader: Exactly. We can develop the habit of stopping before retaliating, giving ourselves time to calm down and so then make a more measured response.

Here's another example. Some people begin the day by bringing to mind all those who irritate them, they're angry with, they find it hard to get on with, then deliberately think of what's good about each of those people. Hopefully, it leads to them making a much more positive response when they meet them than would otherwise be the case. Others give away a proportion of the money they have each week or month so they develop the habit of generosity.

It's all about making the choice to develop a positive habit that eventually becomes part of our personality, a conditioned response.

Time for reflection

Of course, to change our personalities is a difficult task. It takes a lot of commitment and effort. We revert to type so easily. We become discouraged when there are times that we fail to react as we would wish. In fact, Christians believe that such change can only be achieved with the help of God. Though clearly not easy, it certainly seems worth having a go.

Dear Lord,
Thank you that we have the potential to change.
Remind us which aspects of our personalities could be improved.
Give us the resources to make a start and the commitment to persevere.


‘Changes’ by David Bowie

Publication date: February 2016   (Vol.18 No.2)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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