Associative Thinking

I had a few linguistics classes in college and I remember really enjoying studies about associative thinking, or priming, where one word would trigger thoughts about another related thing. If you read stop sign, and someone then asked you to name a color, you are likely to say red. Our minds hover around a set of words associated with a topic, and words further away from the topic probably won’t register as quickly. If you read jellyfish then your mind is going to be set up for more ocean words like water, seaweed, or Nemo. Words like cactus, x-ray, or eviction, would take an extra second for your brain to register because they don’t seem to belong with jellyfish. If you watch Family Feud, then you will get to see great examples of linguistic priming and associative thinking in process. The first person in a family will say their answer, and it will be hard for the rest of the family to jump into a different category to get the final item on the list.


Associative thinking is even more interesting and complicated than just linguistic priming. Daniel Kahneman writes about it in his book Thinking Fast and Slow:


“An idea that has been activated does not merely evoke one other idea. It activates many ideas, which in turn activate others. Furthermore, only a few of the activated ideas will register in consciousness; most of the work of associative thinking is silent, hidden from our conscious selves. The notion that we have limited access to the workings of our minds is difficult to accept because, naturally, it is alien to our experience, but it is true: you know far less about yourself than you feel you do.”


Associative thinking reveals a lot about our minds that we don’t have access to. This is why implicit association tests (IAT) have been used to measure things like racial bias in individuals and societies. Your conscious mind might know it is wrong to think of people of color as criminals, but your unconscious mind might implicitly connect words like crime, drugs, or violence to certain racial groups. Even though you can consciously overcome these biases, your immediate reaction to other people might be enough to show them that you don’t trust them and might reveal implicit fears or negative biases. A clenching fist, a narrowing gaze, or an almost imperceptible backing away from someone might not be conscious, but might be enough for someone to register a sense of unease.


I don’t know enough about the benefits of racial bias training to say if it is effective in counteracting these implicit associations or immediate and unconscious reactions. I don’t know just how truly bad it is that we harbor such implicit associations, but I think it is important that we recognize they are there. It is important to know how the brain works, and important that we think about how much thinking takes place behind the scenes, without us recognizing it. Self-awareness and knowledge about associative thinking can help us understand just how we behave and interact with others, so that hopefully we can bring our best selves to the conversations and interactions we have with people who are different from us.

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