Elizabeth Peterson, MAPP '07, received her B.A. in History from Harvard University, but soon after realized that psychology was the place for her. Elizabeth has been employed as a psychology research assistant at Harvard and as a social work intern at New York Presbyterian Hospital. Elizabeth's bio.
Elizabeth's articles are here.
When I was eight years old, I boldly walked up to my parents and declared that I was ready to paint my room yellow. I’m sure they did their best to stifle a grin as they asked what exactly had come over me. As the child of two lawyers, I was ready to make my case. A yellow room would be sunny, I argued; it would make people feel warm every time they walked through the door; most importantly, I would start my day off happy each morning when I opened my eyes. Apparently swayed by my enthusiasm, my parents agreed to look into it. The next weekend, my mother showed me a paint strip with our available options, pointing to a nice pale yellow at the top. I frowned. “No, that one!” I chirped, as my finger landed on the stripe of color at the other end, a yellow bright enough to make any school bus jealous. Luckily for me, my parents acquiesced, and my walls were soon transformed. Luckily for my parents, I did not ask them to change it a week later. In fact, sixteen years later, my room looks exactly the same.I didn’t know it then, but as an eight year old, I was practicing positive psychology. I had tapped into the idea that putting myself in a positive environment every morning before I left for school would somehow make my day better. In essence, I was priming myself for positivity. Psychologists use the term priming to refer to the activating of certain parts of the brain just before carrying out a task. Though it often occurs unconsciously, priming gets us ready to notice certain things and to feel and act in certain ways.
Priming with Words
Sometimes priming people with only a few words can make a difference in their behavior. Psychologist John Bargh and his colleagues showed that people who were unknowingly primed with words related to rudeness were much more likely to interrupt an experimenter’s private conversation than subjects who were primed with ‘polite’ words. Bargh also found that people who were covertly primed with words related to old age actually walked much slower after the experiment than people who were primed with non-age specific words. When the priming is positive, the brain’s automatic activation can have a similarly significant effect on subsequent behavior. For instance, studies have shown that people primed with words related to ‘success’ subsequently perform much better on intelligence tasks.
If a few words can be this powerful, imagine how much a person’s perception of their whole environment might matter. A classic study by psychologist Ellen Langer shows just how much one’s environment can affect behavior. Langer and her colleagues organized a five day retreat for volunteer subjects, all men in their early 70s. The men spent the five days living as if they were 20 years younger—they were surrounded by magazines, music, and movies from 20 years before, and they were encouraged to speak in the present tense about topics they would have discussed when they were in their 50s. After just five days in this environment, the results were remarkable. The men performed significantly better on cognitive tests, exhibiting greater concentration, attention, and memory skills. Their physical health also improved—they had better posture, eyesight, hearing, and flexibility. The environment had actually lowered their mental and biological ages.
What’s Priming You?
As you sit here reading this, look around the room: what are your surroundings priming you for? What kind of message would you like your room or office to be sending? How could you change your environment to capitalize on the effects of positive priming? For some people, this means making sure there are always fresh cut flowers around. Others fill their bulletin boards with inspirational quotes and flank their computers with pictures of loved ones. If these don’t work for you, that’s ok—I’m not suggesting you cover your fridge with Cathy comics if you’re not that kind of person. The key is finding something right for you, because without your even knowing it, your environment will have a profound effect on you throughout your day.
Think about those moments right before you have to make a big presentation at work. Do you surround yourself with people who will be setting you up for success, or ones who will be telling you all the ways it could go wrong? Or better yet, do you take some time in your office to be alone and take in your own positive environment? And if your walls are yellow, even better.
Bargh, J., Chen, M, & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(2), 230-244.
Langer, E., Chanowitz, B., Palmerino, M., Jacobs, S., Rhodes, M., & Thayer, P. (1990). Nonsequential development and aging. In C. Alexander, E. Langer (Eds.), Higher Stages of Human Development: Perspectives on Adult Growth (pp. 114-136). New York: Oxford University Press.
Yellow room courtesy of LeRamz