Practically nothing you can measure about a person is completely fixed. Some days you don’t concentrate as well, some days your more sociable, some days you have more energy. Even your height varies subtly throughout the day. If we’re interested in positive psychology and self-improvement, a constructive line of inquiry would be working out what causes these variations, and seeing if we can manipulate that cause to give us more of a particular behaviour, emotion, or whatever.
One of these causes is ‘Priming’. Priming is a phenomenon where being exposed to a certain stimuli makes a particular response to a second stimuli more likely to happen. For example, smelling the freshly baked bread when you walk into a store makes you more likely to buy some bread. That’s a simple example, but incredibly, priming also applies to motor skills, physical exertion, intellectual capacity, social graces; even our mental and biological age. Some portion of our performance in these and many more areas is dictated by how we’ve recently been primed.
‘Positive Priming’, in this context, simply means to use this phenomenon to our advantage.
This is going to be a fairly long article. I did a lot of background reading, and doing that really helped drill the main points into my head, so I wouldn’t be giving you the same benefit if I didn’t cover the topic in depth.
I recommend reading from the top down, rather than scanning, as the points build upon one-another as you go along. Feel free to bookmark and return later.
“Every day in every way….”
Originally, this piece was going to be called “Affirmations: Self-Help Scam or Useful Technique?”. I was researching affirmations; the common practice of saying or writing your goals regularly, which is supposed to program the goal into your subconscious. But affirmations fall into the larger group of priming techniques, and as we’ll see, they’re not the most effective way to prime.
I mentioned above some examples of how priming can effect behaviour, but it can also alter your perceptions – being primed for a certain thing seems to filter out other things – a goal reduces input.
When you’re walking around the world, you get bombarded by stimuli from all directions. How does your mind know which ones to pay attention to, and which to ignore? Human nature plays a role; some things are just hardwired into us. If I walk past a pretty blonde on the high street, you can be pretty sure I won’t be looking in the shop windows.
Sex and danger are probably the two main things we’re hardwired to look out for. But our brain also has the function to adopt other “rules” on the fly; presumably this helped our nomadic ancestors adapt to the new and varied environments they were so fond of wandering into.
Here’s an example. In the video below, you’ll see two basketball teams, each with three members, one team wearing black, the other wearing white. They each have a ball, and will pass it between their team mates. All you have to do is count how times the white team pass the ball. The black team will try to confuse you by weaving around and making passes of their own. See how effective you are at filtering the black team out so as to only count the white team passes. Come back when you’re done and see if you counted correctly (don’t cheat and skip ahead!). By the way, one particular gender is better at this task than the other. Which do you think it is?
Video (opens in a new window)
Did you do it? I’ll tell you the correct answer in a moment. You can only be successful at this task by setting up that goal in your mind, in other words, to be primed for it, and have that goal reduce the other input so you can focus on your goal.
A prime is like a filter, then. It blinds you from other things that are irrelevant to your goal, and focuses you on things that are relevant. The classic example is buying a new car of a certain colour, and then suddenly seeing that colour car everywhere.
That’s just like your previous goal of counting the ball bounces. Watch that video again. This time, don’t have the goal of counting. Just watch it. What happens about half way through? You’d think you would have noticed a huge gorilla walk through the middle and beat his chest, wouldn’t you? And maybe you did – some people see it, but a substantial amount (over half) don’t. Your prime filtered out everything that isn’t to do with counting the passes – everything that’s irrelevant to your goal.
(Note: the comment about one gender being better was a lie to make you focus more, I must give credit to Michael Kolster for that idea)
The Effect of Primes
Ignoring gorillas might be a good way to make a point, but it’s a pretty useless skill, if you think about it. If we’re going to find a practical application for this phenomenon, we need to answer two questions:
1) How exactly do we prime someone (or ourselves?).
2) What exactly can we do with this technique? How far we can take it?
In answer to question 1, a prime doesn’t have to be an elaborate stimuli. In fact, you don’t even need to see it consciously. Take the emotions ‘like’ and ‘dislike’, or approach and withdraw. Most, if not all creatures seem to have these – or a system that does a similar job. Jonathan Haidt explains that these emotions run along a scale, a “like-o-meter”. If the like-o-meter is currently set to ‘like’, it will take a while longer to get over to the other side when something you dislike comes along.
Imagine you’re shown a word on screen, and asked to press a button to rate it as good or bad. Pretty easy. “Flower”; Good. “Play”; Good. “Evil”; Bad. No problems. But if, just before you saw the word, the screen flashed up another one, so quickly that only your subconscious picks it up, interesting things start to happen. If the word “Death” is flashed just before “Garden”, it takes you longer to evaluate “Garden” as good, because your like-o-meter takes a while to swing back over. (1)
So even a very short exposure to a written word can work as a prime, but again, it’s pretty useless. We may need stronger primes to get a stronger effect.
They Comments Leave see Usually
Maybe a word scrambling puzzle could provide a stronger prime – something a person has to get involved in, put effort into. One study took participants into a room, and gave them a simple puzzle to do – put some jumbled sentences into the right order. After they were done, they were told to fetch the experimenter, who would be waiting in the next room. Some participants were given ‘rude’ words to unscramble, such as “they her bother see usually”, others were given ‘polite’ words like “they her respect see usually”.
After completing the puzzles, the participants went to the next room, but found the experimenter in the hallway; apparently talking to another participant who was having trouble with the task. In fact, he was a confederate, and the conversation was faked to see whether the rude and polite words would prime the participants to interrupt. Over 60% of the participants primed with ‘rude’ words interrupted their conversation. Less than 20% of people primed with polite words interrupted. (2)
Now we’re getting to some more tangible results. By mere exposure to a few words for about 5 minutes, we can influence how likely someone is to interrupt a conversation.
But it gets better.
Dumb hooligans and slow walkers
That’s a pretty impressive result, but there have been many priming experiments, with more powerful effects. How about intelligence? In another study, participants sat at a a computer and spent a few minutes listing the behaviours, lifestyle and appearance of either professors, or soccer hooligans. Afterwards, a multiple-choice general knowledge test was given. The participants receiving the ‘professor’ prime did better than a group that had no prime, and those primed with ‘hooligan’ did worse. Priming these stereotypes actually seemed to make people more or less intelligent.
Also, the strength of the effect could be altered by changing the priming time – the longer the better – people primed for 9 minutes showed a stronger effect than people primed for 2 minutes.
The research base on priming is massive. Here’s a rundown of just some of the other impressive findings:
- When the participants were primed with words related to elderly stereotypes, they would walk more slowly down the hall after finishing the experiment. (2)
- Voters are more likely to support tax raises to support education when the polling location is a school. (3)
- In a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma, players play more aggressively if there is a briefcase in the room, and more cooperatively if there is a backpack in the room (executives compete; rock climbers cooperate). (4)
- Visual exposure to a sports drink led to more persistence on a physically demanding task. Not drinking the sports drink: looking at it! (5)
It appears that by being primed for a certain stereotype, the behaviours and traits we associate with that stereotype become active in ourselves. We start to play that role.
At this point things are looking promising. We can alter the results of knowledge tests, change competitive behaviours, make people rude; just by exposure to a few words in a lab. Can we take this further?
I’m a big reader of fitness and nutrition literature. I love the subject and could easily have followed that path instead of psychology (although there’s plenty of time for both). I have also noticed that the times I exercise the most and eat the healthiest are the times I’m spending a lot of time reading about the subject.
Could this be priming at work? Maybe the deeper I immerse myself into fitness primes, the stronger I play the fitness role? If so, what would happen if we threw ourselves into a world where everything around us was intended to prime us for a particular response? The next study I’ll describe is incredible!
The Fountain of Youth
In 1979, famous psychologist Ellen Langer and colleagues took a group of participants – all men over 70 – to a five-day retreat in search of the fountain of youth – and found it.
The retreat was a mock up of life some 20 years previous. No modern conveniences were present, participants had to talk in the present tense about the 50s, and before going, they wrote an autobiography as though it were 1959. A week’s worth of activities were devised, all based around daily life in 1959.
How would you measure age? Interestingly, there’s no biological marker of age. Without knowing your birthdate, there is no scientific way to tell you how old you definitely are. To make up for this, a massive group of related variables were measured instead: weight, dexterity, flexibility, vision, taste, intelligence, memory – all things that deteriorate with age. Photographs were also taken, and participants were asked to fill out a self-evaluation test.
The participants spent only five days in the faux 1950′s environment, and on leaving, the same tests were given again. The results were incredible. They performed better on the cognitive tests. Their memory had improved. Even their eyesight and hearing had improved! As far as science was able to tell, the clock had turned back – they got younger!
Maybe the phrase “you’re only as old as you feel” should be “you’re only as old as you’re primed to feel”.
At this point I was going to add a section called “Practical Priming”, with suggestions on how to put this information to use. It’s 90% done, but I have to go away for a couple of days, so I’ll finish it off and put it up separately when I get back.