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Change My Attitude: The Power of Priming

States of mind

Like it or not, many of our decisions, actions, and opinions happen based on an instant response, without any careful thought. For example, we may see someone we don’t like and grimace for a microsecond before putting a more polite expression on our faces; miss momentary opportunities through being mired in depression or anger; or misjudge a person by their face or clothing.

These instant responses are the subject of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. They’re also a part of our behavior that is extremely hard to change. For example, the vast majority of people of all races to take a test to judge racial bias based on how easily they sort faces into categories like “good” or “criminal” come out with at least a mild bias against blacks even when they are consciously and emphatically in support of racial equality. Even knowing this, and knowing how the test works, people taking the test are unable to overcome a bias that may have been ingrained, unfortunately, through hundreds or thousands of cultural channels.

But there is one way to change things for some test takers: thinking about admirable black people, current or historical, tends to cause test-takers’ racial bias to disappear. Thinking about Martin Luther King begins to put all black people into a positive light.

This effect isn’t limited to racial bias. Some other examples of priming experiments:

  • People who answered trivial pursuit questions after thinking about what it would be like to be a college professor did 13% better than people who were asked to think about traditionally non-brainy subjects–that’s the equivalent of getting more than a full grade better on a test, just from a few minutes of mental preparation!
  • Being unknowingly exposed to a number of words that described age tended to make subjects in one study walk more slowly.
  • People primed with ideas about patience would wait for any length of time for people to finish a conversation instead of butting in.

The power of priming, then, is in being able to change our unconscious, immediate, ingrained reactions. If these studies mean what they seem to imply, then if you’re going to a party hoping to make a romantic connection, you’ll be at an advantage if you spend time thinking about romantically successful people. If you’re afraid your future in-laws from rural Appalachia won’t like you, listen to some champion fiddlers and avoid watching reruns of The Beverly Hillbillies. If you’re going to run a race, try reading something about Jesse Owens first.

The power of priming may not be dramatic, but it’s significant, and priming affects the knee-jerk responses we usually can’t do anything about.

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Dealing With Problems That Can’t Be Fixed

Handling negative emotions

From all my talk about how idea repair can be used to deal with negative emotions–anger, sadness, fear, etc.–you might get the sense I’m trying to say that negative emotions are always a bad thing. Yet negative emotions can serve the purpose of focusing our attention where it’s needed (see “The Benefits of Feeling Bad“). So when is a negative emotion helpful and when is it just a drag?

If the problem in front of you can be changed and acted upon, then there are some questions to ask, and I’ll talk about these in a near-future post. But if the problem can’t be fixed, then the choice is simply between a) having the problem and being miserable and b) having the problem but being happy anyway.

If you’re in a situation that is not going to change on its own, can’t be changed by you, and can’t be avoided (or is too important to avoid), then the only thing left to do is to change your feelings toward the situation. This requires surrender and being willing to find and repair broken ideas about the problem, something that’s not easy for most of us. After all, we’re generally taught that if something is broken, someone should fix it. Not many of us are raised to deal comfortably with things that can’t be fixed.

Things that will fix themselves or that can be fixed by you but that will take some time to get there also require surrender and idea repair (or the equivalent) if you don’t want to be miserable in the mean time. For example, if you’re in a very bad financial situation that won’t get any better until your house sells, then you have the choice of being miserable until your house sells or of dealing with your feelings immediately, even though the situation will go away in future. Unfortunately, temporary problems often weigh on us just as heavily as permanent ones, and call for the same strategies if we want to stop them from causing pain.

The benefits of reconciling ourselves to things we can’t change come whether the problem is large or small, fair or unfair, permanent or temporary, our fault or someone else’s fault or no one’s fault: letting go of negative emotions that can’t be acted upon creates a happier daily existence and clears the mind to focus on situations where we can make a different right now.

Photo by poritsky

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