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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.[1] 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.

Environmental Priming

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.
 


 
References

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.

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Yellow room courtesy of LeRamz

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19 comments

Amy February 26, 2007 - 11:54 am

Liz, I’m going to spend the next five minutes making my desk look successful. You’re a GENIUS! And keep that in mind as you prepare to write your next article. Thanks for turning around the outlook on my day.

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Virginia M. Ambler, Ph.D. February 26, 2007 - 12:22 pm

As I sit here in my campus office — with it’s fresh coat of butter-yellow paint, and both family photos AND a vase of flowers by my computer — I wholeheartedly agree! Thanks for the great article.

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Senia February 26, 2007 - 2:18 pm

Elizabeth, I really like that you talk about both priming in terms of words, and also in terms of environment. So interesting. … Do you think there’s such a thing as “overpriming”? Do you know if there’s research showing people put lot of effort into motivational cues and success-oriented imagery and then not following those up with action? I don’t know if there is such research.

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Christine Duvivier February 26, 2007 - 6:14 pm

Elizabeth, I love your article– it’s cheering just to read about the room and the priming words!

Christine

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Sherri Fisher February 26, 2007 - 9:32 pm

Hi, Elizabeth–

When I had my screened porch glassed in, I could paint the walls in the new room. I chose a bright yellow. At the paint store the salesperson told me I was going overboard since it was already an outdoor space and would be bright enough as a result. Antique White was recommended. I told him that in my new room it would be sunny every day, even when it was gloomy outside my door. Here’s to sunshine inside 😎

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Shawn February 27, 2007 - 2:19 am

Professor Peterson, great job making academic findings come to life with your stories. After your post, I have decided to make my workspace less spartan. I’ve also resolved to not associate with any old people in order to avoid possible priming. 😀 Thanks for your thoughtful suggestions! I’ll look forward to next month’s post.

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Jennifer A. Gosk February 27, 2007 - 8:59 pm

Thanks so much for this inspiring and well written article. I am so happy to get another reminder from the Langer study that reveals the potential for profound change that might occur when we prime and ready ourselves in ways that might truly flower our wonderous potentials. I loved how you use aesthetic priming and linguistic priming for the growth of this powerful tool and to mindfully bring about transformation into our lives.
Thanks again and wonderful night.

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Debbie February 28, 2007 - 12:15 pm

Elizabeth Feng Shui Peterson, can I hire you to redo my office? The shade of yellow isn’t quite right.

I like the idea of having my surroundings become my positive portfolio. I’m looking forward to being surrounded by MAPP students soon. It does wonders for my outlook!

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Editor S.M. March 6, 2007 - 1:04 pm

Master-Reality.ru website has reprinted this article in Russian.
Here it is:
http://www.master-reality.ru/main.php?script=news&action=shownews&id=32

Reply
Hal Wechsler June 8, 2008 - 10:35 am

Let’s go out on a limb and say we have a
bicameral brain (conscious and subconscious)
and our conscious mind has a broadband capacity
of about 50 bits of information per second,
and our nonconscious mind has broadband width of
11 million bits of info per sec.

Citations too extension to recite.

Check out Ideomotor effects to communicate with your
subconscious mind (right hemisphere) through your corpus
callosum.

My background is law and did not believe the power
of accessing my subconscious for fun, profit and health
until I experimented.

Good health and success,
Hal

Reply
Senia Maymin June 9, 2008 - 12:07 am

Hal,
Thanks very much for your thoughts! Exactly. Very interesting analogy. Did you see some of the additional articles that our authors have written about the subconscious? Here is a good place to start:
https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/david-j-pollay/20071102463 by David J. Pollay. Please check out some of the other references in the comments.
My best,
Senia

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Rodney Daut May 8, 2010 - 3:43 am

Elizabeth,

Thanks for posting this. What I’m taking away from it is the fact that just a few words can prime someone negatively or positively. So I’ll do my best to choose the right kinds of words when working with people so I can help them achieve their best.

Rodney

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helwe June 3, 2010 - 4:30 am

u’re awesome!! this helped me understand better my article” who’s minding the mind” .. but i still cant understand what is meant by priming people? can any one explain it to me?

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Ray January 9, 2011 - 8:48 am

great article, will have to recommend this to an old friend who need’s his surrounding’s to be cleaned up a bit.

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