I’ve become “the license plate lady” to all of my children’s friends, who are now accustomed to riding in a carpool with me and hearing me suddenly yelp as I spot a terrific vanity plate, “Get a picture of that license plate!” Anyone with a good view of my target now knows to zoom in, get a few snaps, and show it to everyone for approval so that I can use it as a teaching tool about the power of words in shaping our moods.
It’s been studied in many settings how important our environment is to our well-being, and part of that is what we happen to read in signs, books, newspapers, or even on television. One interesting study showed that test subjects who unscrambled anagrams with words like “wisdom,” “retired” and “Florida” walked more slowly out of testing rooms than people who unscrambled anagrams with neutral words, for example. And students at the University of Wisconsin who subliminally viewed words like “decision” were more likely to have formed opinions about a subject than people who were subliminally exposed to neutral words, and then presented with a scenario that required a judgment.
Sport psychologists are also aware of the power of words in training environments, such as “succeed,” “win,” and “excellence,” which have been found to boost persistence in goal accomplishment. Dr. Andrew Weil, author of many medical books on alternative health, also recommends that we take a “news fast” for a week in which we don’t read newspapers or watch any disturbing stories on television to gauge the impact on our moods and optimism.
Priming in a negative way can have absolutely gruesome consequences. In 2006, “60 Minutes” ran a story about the abominable video series, “Bumfights,” which feature staged fights between homeless men who are enticed to fight with gifts of alcohol, cash, or some other inducement to meet an immediate desire. In these videos, homeless men are often seen beating each other until they pass out, lose a tooth, or otherwise get disfigured. In several upsetting incidents, it was found that teenagers who watched the bumfights videos repeatedly went out and beat defenseless street people into unconsciousness, or even death. In the trials, the teenagers said that the “Bumfights” videos had warped their minds so badly that they’d lost all sense of how to distinguish reality from video images.
Several other disturbing news reports highlight the importance of paying attention to the words we see and hear in our daily environments. In another murder trial, a fan of the musician Eminem admitted that repeatedly listening to a certain song by that artist had given him the idea of killing his girlfriend, dismembering her, and then putting her body parts in a suitcase — just like the song suggested. Similarly, it’s been found that teenagers who load their iPods with sexually suggestive songs have sex younger than peers who listen to different types of songs, or listen to sexually suggestive songs less often.
Clearly, priming through words can be both powerful and emotionally loaded — for good and evil. For that reason, I encourage all of my clients to learn the research around this topic and use it to their advantage to behave in ways that are pro-social and positive. If you’re not convinced yet that seeing pictures or words can have an impact on your behavior and mood yet, consider the following:
Princeton students who wrote about the qualities of “superheros” in one research study were more likely to behave like superheros and be prosocial — such as through giving blood — in the weeks after this writing exercise than those who had a different writing topic.
Individuals who were primed with words pertaining to academic achievement later said they felt emotionally “closer” to significant others who would want them to have those types of achievements, and said that they intended to spend more time with those people in the near future.
If people observed others doing a task or job while smiling or clearly having a good time, they later said that they had a favorable impression of that job/task, and might consider it for themselves, as well (is it any wonder that every single commercial on television or in the media shows people having a wonderful time while eating/sleeping/running/engaging in that activity? Or even that every single watch ad known to man has the watch set to ten minutes after ten, which looks suspiciously like a smile to me? ).
This brings me back to the importance of license plates. The research is clear that both unconscious and conscious behaviors are changed through primes, so why not fill your life volitionally with words, sounds and people that make you smile? Savor happy memories? Push you forward to goal accomplishment?
If you agree with my ideas, then getting a vanity license plate that makes you smile is a no-brainer. For example, my license plate says, “WEHVFUN,” and I’ve lost count of how many people have smiled when they saw it, or even when I get into my car every day! Is there any price I could put on the tonnage of joy I’ve created simply by telling the world I have fun, and then following through?
I now have a bulging folder of license plate pictures that I use when I give presentations on priming. Consider the following license plates I’ve captured on film or that have been sent to me, and imagine how you’d feel if you saw the license plate.
Peaking (selected to remind owner to shoot for a “peak” experience every day!)
And if you want to take priming through positive words one step further, consider changing your email address to reflect a goal, emotion or activity that is important to you. When I was getting my black belt in Hapkido a few years ago (and breaking bones and getting my butt kicked by teenagers), I changed one of my email addresses to read: LuvHapkido, because I hated Hapkido and wanted to quit every day (I ended up loving it and being the only adult who got a black belt that year — do you think it worked?). Other clever email addresses I’ve seen are: GrittyTurtle, Comeback2004 (an Olympian), BestsellerNextYear, workinprogress, and CloserToJoy.
Use priming words strategically all around you – in your environment, car, license plate, cell phone banner, email address, etc. – and watch what happens in your subconscious and conscious mind. Since it’s been shown that negative words and images can fuel negativity, it’s up to us to flip that equation on its head and do the opposite for our maximum well-being. And don’t forget Mischel’s fabulous work on how the most successful children in one experiment avoided eating a cookie so that they could get another cookie — they closed their eyes or turned their backs!
If you don’t see it, it won’t have an impact on you. So if there’s something you’re going to see or hear on a regular basis, at least use priming research to elicit the best for yourself.
And since I’m assuming the “peak-end” rule also matters, here’s my final thought: SMILE.
Chartrand, T. L. & Bargh, J. A. (1996). Automatic activation of impression formation and memorization goals: Nonconscious goal priming reproduces effects of explicit task instructions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 464 – 478.
Custers, R. & Aarts, H. (2005). Positive affect as implicit motivator: On the nonconscious operation of behavioral goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 129 – 142.
Nelson, L. D. & Norton, M. I. (2005). From student to superhero: Situational primes shape future helping. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41, 423- 430.
Shah, J. Y. (2005). The automatic pursuit and management of goals. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 10 – 13.
Shah, J. Y. & Kruglanski, A.W. (2002). Priming against your will: How goal pursuit is affected by accessible alternatives. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 368 – 383.
Shah, J. Y., Friedman, R., & Kruglanski, A. W. (2002). Forgetting all else: On the antecedents and consequences of goal shielding. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1261 – 1280.
Shah, J. Y. (2003). Automatic for the people: How representations of significant others implicitly affect goal pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 661 – 681.