The Power of Priming


I was just reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink. In it, he talks about how our subconscious mind affects our decisions and behavior, both for good and for bad. In it, he wrote about priming. “’Priming’ refers to when subtle triggers influence our behavior without our awareness of such changes. An example of this occurred in Spain, where authorities introduced classical music on the subways and saw incidents of vandalism and littering drastically decrease” (p444). (He gives several examples and experiments around this issue, if you’re curious to learn more.)

I’ve seen it happen in my own life in many ways. With music, as he described, when playing indoor soccer. When facilities play music that is aggressive and angry, tempers and tensions run high and fights are quick to explode. But, when the music is happier and energetic (without being angry), games are usually more lighthearted, and conflicts are significantly and measurably reduced.

I remember another time, I started to notice that I was defensive and quick to want to defend my rights and/or call someone out on their infractions (of decency, kindness, morality…whatever I happened to notice). Where was this coming from? I wasn’t acting like myself. Then I realized, I had been watching a legal show on Netflix, and I knew—I had been primed. I had absorbed the mentality of that show and was responding to it. I had become the “rights” police and felt entitled to my anger over everyone else’s bad behavior.

Ouch. It stings because priming means that what we see and hear and watch…those things affect us and our behavior far more than I, personally, want to admit. I want to be able to watch a show or listen to a song and just take the good (the parts I enjoy) and believe that I can leave the bad (the parts that I know don’t honor God or add up with scripture). But, according to this idea of priming, that’s not so easily done.

Gladwell writes, “The results from these [priming] experiments are, obviously, quite disturbing. They suggest that what we think of as free will is largely an illusion: much of the time, we are simply operating on automatic pilot, and the way we think and act—and how well we think and act on the spur of the moment—are a lot more susceptible to outside influences than we realize” (p98). It is disturbing. I don’t want to admit what a puppet I am of my environment.

And yet, Gladwell also writes, “But there is also, I think, a significant advantage to how secretly the unconscious does its work” (p98). And I agree, the power of our subconscious, the power of priming, is a power which can work for both bad AND good. The first step is to realize and acknowledge the power of it in the first place. The second is to be intentional about how we use it.

I need to recognize that I am influenced, deeply and subconsciously, by everything in my environment. So, I need to be careful about my environment—to recognize that the things I read, see, listen to, etc… will rub off on me. We become like what we behold. So I need to set boundaries and keep things out of my environment (as much as I can) that will have a negative impact on me. For example, in the 80’s I became aware that the pop music of the day was making me depressed, so I stopped listening to it (insofar as I had control over that). That was step one, to stop the thing that was negatively priming me. Step two, I started listening to Christian music. I used the power of priming for good, intentionally. I chose to listen to music which primed me for hope and joy and positivity. It made a huge difference in my life at that time.

Some of this is natural to us, like changing my music choices or avoiding negative people, etc. But as I read this, it hit me on a new level: when we realize the power of priming, it’s easy to see why the concept of a “quiet time” in the morning is so powerful and important. It primes us to think about God throughout the day. Our subconscious becomes filled with hope, because life isn’t just lived in the natural, but we have a higher reality, and a super natural God who can work on our behalf. We are reminded of the love that died for us…which primes us to be more loving as well. It primes our day with the Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control—because that is the only fruit you will find in scripture. There’s no negativity in God, or anger or bitterness, etc.

Priming also helps me understand some of the Old Testament laws and traditions. God made our subconscious and knows how it works. So, of course He is telling us how to harness that power for our good, by surrounding ourselves with reminders of Him, of His laws, His love, His goodness, His miracles and past faithfulness to us…because those things affect our brains, and precondition us to see more of His love in the present, and have hope for our future. This is one of the reasons why He wants us to surround ourselves with things that remind us of Him and why we are to commit his word to memory.

Suddenly, I see David’s resolutions in Psalm 101 with new understanding. He may not have realized the science behind it all, but he surely knew, at a practical level, the power our environment has to affect our brains. So, David is intentional about controlling that environment all he can—to get rid of anything that would negatively prime his subconscious, and to choose to surround himself with things that will positively prime his subconscious.

I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless.
I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not cling to me.
A perverse heart shall be far from me;  I will know nothing of evil.

Whoever slanders his neighbor secretly  I will destroy.
Whoever has a haughty look and an arrogant heart I will not endure.

I will look with favor on the faithful in the land, that they may dwell with me;
he who walks in the way that is blameless shall minister to me

If I focus on the fact that I’m largely helpless in the face of the reality of priming—that I cannot help but be affected by the world around me, I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated that I can’t just watch whatever I want, listen to whatever I want, etc. without it affecting me. There are some things I don’t want to have to give up. Our world is full entertainment (for starters) with mixed baggage and I want to enjoy it without any negative consequences. And, to be honest, my pride resents feeling like I’m just a puppet.

If, however, I focus on the fact that I can choose what I’m primed with (to a large degree), that I can use this power for good, then I’m inspired and motivated. Yes, I may be a puppet to some degree, but a puppet that gets to choose what (or Who) holds the strings. I can choose to fill my mind with God’s word, to start my days with Him, to listen to things which keep me focused on Him, to put reminders of Him in my house and life… and in so doing, I can “prime” myself to think and feel and therefore act like Him. So, while I choose to live like Him, to follow Him… I can also make the task easier by harnessing my subconscious through priming and getting it to work for me, too.

We need to realize though, priming happens. Period. So I am either sabotaging myself and my desire to live like Jesus by priming myself with things that are not of God’s Kingdom (priming myself with feelings of anger but all the while trying to choose joy as God says I ought, for example), or I’m helping myself by synchronizing my subconscious and my conscious so that both align with the Spirit of God. How amazing to think that He made our brains so that our subconscious actually can help us to be more like Him…and make it easy!

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