Priming and Creativity

Continuing with the idea of priming, Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds researches the work of Jens Forster from the International University Bremen in Germany.  Forster asked people to participate in simple creativity exercises in environments that were specifically controlled and measured.  Forster began with an activity to mentally prime individuals by asking them to think about a certain stereotype, and measuring their creative ideas.  Following his mental priming experiment Forster executed a visual priming experiment. As Wiseman explains,

 

“Forster asked participants to take a standard creativity task (“think of as  many uses for a brick as possible”) while seated in front of one of two specially created art prints .  The two prints were each about three feet square, almost identical and consisted of twelve large crosses against a light green background.  In one picture all of the crosses were dark green, while in the other print eleven were dark green and one was yellow.  The researchers speculated that the unconscious mind would perceive this single yellow cross as breaking away from its more conservative and conventional green cousins and that this would encourage more radical and creative thinking.  The results were astounding.  Even though the participants didn’t consciously notice the picture, those seated in front of the “creative” picture produced significantly more uses for the brick.  A panel of experts judged their responses as far more creative.  The message is clear: if you want to fast track a group or and individual to think more creatively, use the power of visual priming.”

 

I find this experiment and idea to be really inspiring.  I have created my own simple art prints and placed them around my desk at work to help me generate more creative ideas throughout the day.  Prior to reading Wiseman’s book and beginning to listen to podcasts like Debbie Millman’s Design Matters, I never thought of myself as creative, but Forster’s experiments shows that everyone can be creative, especially if we prime ourselves for creativity both mentally and visually.

The Power of Our Environment

While discussing the influence of small cues on our thought process, Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds reflects on several studies that show how our environment can shape our thoughts and actions.  Wiseman explains the impact of small cues and the affect known as priming.  Priming involves triggers that lead to particular actions or thoughts becoming more prevalent or likely to occur.  A sneeze is a primer for someone to say bless you, the word hot is a primer for the word dog, and the Family Feud tv show is an experiment in priming with a cue or phrase priming responses from contestants.

 

Wiseman explains ways in which many situations in our lives can be impacted by primers, “Put people in front of a computer wallpaper showing dollar symbols, and they behave in a more selfish and unfriendly way, giving less money to charity and sitting farther away from others.  Give interviewers a cup of iced coffee, and unknowingly they rate interviewees as colder and less pleasant.  Add a faint smell of cleaning fluid to the air, and people tidy up more thoroughly.  Put a briefcase on a table during a meeting and people become more competitive.  The evidence points to a little counting for a lot.”

 

I find the idea of priming and our environment as very interesting since subtleties can have such a big impact on our actions.  I think most people can understand the situation where you are trying to cut back on sweets, yet in the office break room you see a pink box, and suddenly sugary foods are the only thing you can focus on.  These small cues seem to have a large impact on our behavior, and they seem to put decisions and actions beyond our control.
Changing our behavior is difficult, and the study by Wiseman shows that there are ways in which we can use priming for positive results. We can manipulate our environment to produce specific changes in our behavior, and help us act in ways we would like.  I am currently working through Dave Ramsey’s book on household money management and financial freedom, The Total Money Makeover, and one thing that Ramsey mentions is the myth that we only need a greater will power to change our actions and to achieve the goals we want.  What Ramsey explains, and what Wiseman’s research backs up, is that we are all motivated to make smart decisions (in this case financially) but we do not have systems in place to help us do so.  In the case of priming, we could say that our environment is set up to make it easy for us to go into debt and spend money, especially since our culture and environment lacks primers that lead us to save money and work on budgeting.

 

I think that it is worth the effort to study and practice simple priming methods that may help one create an environment that stimulates the desired lifestyle, actions, or thoughts that one is hoping to produce.  Understanding that small cues in our environment can have a big impact on our minds can help us feel better about ourselves when we have trouble reaching a goal, and can give us easy first steps to reach the goals we set out for.