The Priming Effect – Your Thoughts, Friends, Environment = Future You

The Priming Effect - Your Thoughts, Friends, Environment = Future You - 2

Introduction

With my head stuck into Thinking Fast and Slow, the voluminous book by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, I started becoming more familiar with the field of behavioral economics. Kahneman discusses extensively about cognitive biases and automatic (unconscious) mechanisms that drive human behavior (unconscious to you and me of course – unless you are actively aware of them).

Such mechanisms may allow deceitful/scheming/manipulating entities to exploit us for different purposes.

Other biases may provide rationale behind personal development babble. One of them, the focus of this write-up, is the priming effect. It caught my interest and it made me read a few scientific papers about it. Over the last few decades the priming effect has received a cocktail of appraisal and criticism on behalf of the research community.

In short, “priming is an implicit memory effect in which exposure to one stimulus (i.e., perceptual pattern) influences the response to another stimulus.” (more)

The perspective from the personal development/self-help field:

Brian Tracy says: Whatever your mind dwells upon grows into your reality.”
Tony Robbins says that: It’s your decisions and not your conditions that determine your destiny.”
Others, a whole lot, say that: You are the average of the 5 people you spend most of your time with.”

Unromantically, the fields of psychology and neuroscience have explored the mechanism in a more controlled and scientific manner. Here are some of the studies that I read about priming:

Behavioral Priming – It’s all in the Mind, but whose Mind – published 2012, 265 citations
Just Going Along – Nonconscious Priming – published 1999, 161 citations
Priming and Human Memory Systems – published 1990, 2500 citations
Repetition Priming and Automaticity – published 1990, 515 citations
Specificity of Priming – Cognitive Neuroscientific Perspective – published 2004, 233 citations

If you’re interested in exploring the science and controversy behind the priming effect, I encourage you to do your own search. This way you may not be influenced by my thoughts.

The Priming Effect

If you got this far and you still don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a good video that discusses priming and its implications:

If you want to learn about this in plain, simple terms, you can read the chapter on influences from Darren Hardy’s book The Compound Effect (starting on page 119) – the self-help approach to priming:

“Everyone is affected by three kinds of influences: input (what you feed your mind), associations (the people with whom you spend time), and environment (your surroundings).”

Expanding on the idea that you’re the average of the 5 people you spend most of your time with, I’d go even further and assume (by oversimplification and rationalization) that you are the average of the top few stimuli that you are mostly exposed to.

Simplified, you are heading in the direction of what your conscious and unconscious mind deals with the most. Please correct me with contradictory arguments.

By stimuli, I refer to everything that builds your reality: people you spend time with, input you feed into your mind (from online/offline), your daily activities, habits, etc. You cannot expect success if everything you do (implying action) and think (carefully filtering thoughts) doesn’t point you in that direction.

On the positive side and in light of the priming effect, you may grow if you limit your exposure to people that may have a negative influence on your state of mind and increase your exposure to people that can help you become better. This implies deliberately taking action.

Reading personal development/self-help/success books and expecting your divinity of choice to bless you with money and fame is the delusion of the illiterate. A good book on this is Mindset by Carol Dweck.

On the other hand, you grow if you help other people grow. Just be intelligent about it so that you’re not being taken advantage of. For this, you can read Give and Take by Adam Grant.

If you’re Facebook feed only shows you entertaining information there is not much that you can grow from. There is no water and nutrients to grow the seed, no nourishing ground. Your only possible short-lived benefit may be a small squirt of dopamine. Keep doing it and you’re in for self-destruction. I am not implying that everyone needs/wants to live a good life – otherwise they may be more careful in curating what they are exposed to.

On the other hand, deliberate exposure to information/people/thoughts/stimuli that could improve your skills and consistent practice may point you in a better direction. Here’s a personal example:

I tried learning coding numerous times and I failed miserably. A possible explanation could be inconsistency – or insufficient uninterrupted focus/exposure on/to coding (reading about it, getting my hands dirty, watching videos and lectures, doing courses, etc).

Over the past couple of months I’ve been able to somehow break this chain by forcefully – the first 2-3 weeks – exposing myself to coding (in the ways mentioned above). The first 2-3 weeks had to be intensive (+ frustrating + unpleasant + time consuming) so that I could turn this into a daily habit. The same reinforcing practices go for most of my habits.

Now I am exposed to coding at least 1 hour almost everyday. Now I am enjoying it. I am not very good at it yet, but someday…maybe…

Another example involves my reading habit:

Five years ago I hated reading and I laughed at people who read books. Somehow (I cannot remember the exact circumstances) a few books passed through my hands. I started firing up the habit of building self-education.

At first I only dealt with generic books, mostly the personal development/self-help kind. Then I became more specific and focused mostly on books to help me develop my desired skills. Then I started broadening my approach to knowledge acquisition by listening to audiobooks and podcasts, by watching seminars and lectures online, by doing online courses on my topics of interest, by reading scientific papers, and by attending in-person events, conferences, seminars, meetups, etc. This deliberate exposure to stimuli is favorable to the direction in which I want to move.

Reading books has slowly become a deeply ingrained habit. I don’t do it for the fun of it and I don’t speed-read. Becoming consistent with reading allowed me to strike some personal records.

In 2014 I read ~58 books, while in 2015 I got to 86 books. In 2016 (as of May) I am at my 50th.

All the knowledge I gather is worthless and may be lost quickly if I do not apply it, that is if I do not have first hand experience with the concepts. This is why I experiment with most of the stuff I learn, in one form or another.

Ending Thoughts

If during my wake hours I expose myself to 5-10 great people that are better than me, either by watching their lectures, videos, reading their books, etc. – it doesn’t have to be in person, chances are I may get closer to what I want.

You could argue that this is not possible when you’re working/living in a dynamic environment and you’re exposed to dozens of people everyday that may elicit a mixed impact on you. You may be right (to a certain extent). And this is where you have to take action.

This is where you have to train your mind to be less affected by the influences of the negative people in your environment (if you can’t control your environment momentarily) and more affected by those that can impact you in a positive way.

The bottom line is that, from my current perspective, you steer into the direction of the top few stimuli you are exposed to, be it: people, media, information, thoughts, environment, etc.

In light of this:

Improving your attention span by actively focusing on a few stimuli of your choice may lead you in the direction you want. I am aware that this is extremely difficult today when our attention span is destroyed by uncountable stimuli every second we’re awake. Yet, it is not impossible to do it. After all, many top performers in any field do it. You and I could be among them, of course, with deliberate practice, persistence, and with forceful (at first) exposure to carefully selected stimuli.

Though the bulk of this write-up is composed of anecdotes, personal reports and non-scientific claims, the priming effect has received its dose of scientific scrutiny. Read more about priming on its wiki page (and look into the references section as well). My analogies may have not made the best of possible cases. However, I hope that I may have helped.

I’ll end similarly to how I started, by providing a simple, practical and, hopefully, sensible take away messages:

Whatever your mind dwells upon grows into your reality.” (Brian Tracy)
It’s your decisions and not your conditions that determine your destiny.” (Tony Robbins)
You are the average of the 5 people you spend most of your time with.” (Popular Wisdom)

And by (my) extension: You are the average of the top few stimuli you are mostly exposed to.

More easily and even more succinctly (and possibly more esoterically and woo-woo):

You become what you choose to think consistently.


References:

  1. Doyen, S., Klein, O., Pichon, C. L., & Cleeremans, A. (2012). Behavioral priming: it’s all in the mind, but whose mind?. PloS one, 7(1), e29081.
  1. Epley, N., & Gilovich, T. (1999). Just going along: Nonconscious priming and conformity to social pressure. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35(6), 578-589.
  1. Tulving, E., & Schacter, D. L. (1990). Priming and human memory systems. Science, 247(4940), 301-306.
  1. Logan, G. D. (1990). Repetition priming and automaticity: Common underlying mechanisms?. Cognitive Psychology, 22(1), 1-35.
  1. Schacter, D. L., Dobbins, I. G., & Schnyer, D. M. (2004). Specificity of priming: A cognitive neuroscience perspective. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 5(11), 853-862.

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