Prime Yourself

In the few brief scattered bits of time I find to read in between my day job, working out, and working on my project, I’ve been making my way through an interesting book called You Are Not So Smart. The book contains brief summaries with examples of 46 different ways in which people commonly delude themselves. People like to think they know themselves and their own mind, and understand the rationale behind why they take the decisions that they do, when in actual fact the reality of the inner workings of their minds is completely different.

Many of the items in the book are things I’ve come across before, and indeed, I always make every attempt possible to be intellectually honest with myself at all times. We cannot progress as individuals after all if we are lying to ourselves on a daily basis. Some of the articles put names to concepts I’ve been aware of, but never seen described in a formal fashion, whilst some are completely new to me. All in all the book is an entertaining read, and many of the chapters could be turned into topics for blog posts in their own right.

One such topic which I have been mulling over writing about for a couple of weeks is the concept of Priming. Priming refers to the effect that external influences have on our subconscious mind when we are not paying attention consciously to them. Ever driven somewhere, and had no recollection of the journey when you arrived? That’s an example of a condition known as line hypnosis, in which our minds are in an ideally receptive state for such influences. Psycho-entertainers such as Derren Brown are adept at using this technique to plant ideas in the minds of their subjects, to then utterly amaze them later on by “predicting” thoughts and behaviours that are then exhibited as a result of the priming.

The book describes a study carried out, in which pairs of subjects were given a chance of earning $10. The subjects were presented with a cup containing two slips of paper, on one of which was written the word “Decision”, and the word “Offer” on the other. One of the subjects was given the choice of picking a slip first themselves, or giving the choice to the other person. Whoever picked out the “Offer” slip got given the $10, and then was allowed to make an offer to split the money with the other person. The only catch was that if the second subject rejected their offer, then neither participant would receive a penny, so it was in their best interests to make a fair offer.

Before the paper slip picking took place, each of the subjects was shown a series of photos and textual descriptions of objects on a piece of paper, and asked to draw lines between the image and its description. In the first run of the experiment, “neutral” objects were shown (kites, whales, turkeys), whilst in a second run, business related objects were depicted (pens, briefcases, laptops).

The effects of priming were readily apparent. In the first iteration, with the neutral pictures, the subject who drew out the “Offer” slip opted to split the money 50/50 with the other subject almost every time. In the second instance of the experiment with the business related items however, each time the subject who was to make the decision on the split of the money tried to keep more for themselves. The act of being exposed to photos associated with the world of business had subconsciously made them think in a more ruthless fashion.

The experiment was also carried out in different ways. Words with missing letters were shown to the neutral object group and the business object group, such as c_p_tive. Almost twice as often, the business group turned the words into things with more business related connotations  such as “competitive”, than the neutral group. A video of two people talking was shown – the neutral group described it as a conversation, the business group as a negotiation.

Pretty much every physical object we encounter triggers a wave of associations in our subconscious minds, affecting our behaviours and moods. Wouldn’t it be useful if we could self-prime, surrounding ourselves by objects in our day to day environment which would be conducive to inducing positive behaviours?

It’s not possible to self-prime on a conscious level – the very act of being consciously aware of something removes its suggestive power. However, think about when you wear a suit – how do you feel? You are obviously aware of the suit when you put it on, and look at yourself in the mirror, but over the course of the day, the fact you are wearing it retreats from your conscious mind, but the effect of wearing it persists. I feel and act like a more confident, dominant version of myself when I wear an expensive, tailored suit, as compared to some smeared tracksuit bottoms and a hoodie (which I’m currently rocking out – don’t judge me).

The opportunities for self-priming to induce positive behaviours in ourselves are numerous. Some examples could be:

  • creating a clean, welcoming living space in order to relax and improve mood
  • having a comfortable, luxurious bed to encourage good sleeping habits, and all the benefits that come from that
  • being in good shape – simply knowing that at all times you are muscular and ripped has an enormous boost on self confidence
  • dressing well – you feel and act like a different person when you are presented well to the world, the better you dress the more pronounced the effect
  • keeping your physical appearance in good order – get a fashionable haircut, lose the neckbeard, get a tan
  • having a minimal, uncluttered work environment free of distractions
  • associating only with friends who are positive and supportive, and cutting negative influences out

The list could go on and on. Whilst the initial decision to improve any of these areas is a conscious one, after a period of time the decision sinks back into the mists of your mind, and the subconscious benefits remain.

Without being able to put a name to the process, I have been priming myself for success almost to the exclusion of all else over the last year. I’ve carried out every single item on the list above, and the overall effect on my mood and confidence has been immeasurable. As soon as one of the items begins to slip, it immediately bugs me, knocking me out of peak mental operating capacity, and I immediately focus all my efforts on getting the aberrant factor back into line.

Think about the things you can do to prime yourself in your own life. Are you really maximising the potential for being the optimal version of yourself that you can be at all times? If you find yourself going through your day to day life with niggling worries on your mind – stop putting if off and do something about them. The rewards on your state of mind are well worth the time investment.

I hope I’ve conveyed the general outline of this topic with clarity – the book does a much better job of explaining it than I!

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7 thoughts on “Prime Yourself

  1. Simple yet awesome. I can testify that priming in this way has led to big positive changes in my own life. It’s really all about the little steps that you mention, collectively propelling you forwards.

    • The elimination of any negative influences on my mood in order to maintain optimum state at all times is now my default mode of operation, I’ve got a more detailed post coming soon.

    • Always interested to consider the other side of the coin on such things.

      Reading through the first article, the sentence “One new report suggests that volunteers consciously pick up on what’s expected of them in priming trials by reading researchers’ body language and other unwitting, nonverbal prompts.” immediately jumps out – they’re saying that the intended priming only worked because basically… the subjects were in fact primed by reading the researchers’ body language? Still seems like the subjects were “primed” to me, just not by the originally intended mechanism.

      It seems to suggest that subliminal effects do indeed exist from cues, although they may not act in entirely such a simplistic fashion as first expected. Awareness of the attempted priming attempt removes its effectiveness, which is consistent with the chapter in the book I read.

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