There’s a concept in cognitive psychology called priming. In its most abstract, this means that if we are given a reminder of a stimulus before being presented with that stimulus, we are more likely to behave favorable towards that stimulus. People who are shown pictures of money before being asked to calculate the cost of groceries are more rapid in their calculations and people who are reminded of aging through subtle cue words like “Florida” and “retirement” are more likely to walk slowly immediately afterwards.
Some of these priming examples have unfortunate consequences (like the so-called old-aging “Florida priming” example) but I’d like to look at how we might use these realities to improve our performance, too.
Here are two cases studies:
Asian Test priming: asian students who are reminded of their ethnicity prior to tests, perform better than the same students not reminded that of asian-students-make-good-test-takers stereotype. In this case, students are simply being reminded of the biases they themselves might hold. My curiosity then is how else might we use our current beliefs to stimulate behavior in accordance with those beliefs?
Age priming: In the “Florida priming” example, participants in the study walk more slowly due to the reminders of behaviors of the elderly. In this example, participants are performing according to the dictates of a different stereotyped group. How then could we stimulate performance according to the group different then our own?
I am going to examine both of these cognitive biases from the perspective of learning ballet, but the lessons can be applied across any physical or mental discipline.
To begin, what are the affirming beliefs that I hold about myself?
- I can dance
- I am good at learning movement skills
- I am smart, and can apply that intelligence to solve problems, if I make the effort
- I am motivated by community
- I am most productive/effective when joyful
Each of these can be used to improve my rate of learning and stimulate performance. Simply by reminding myself of a previous example when I danced well would be enough to stimulate the belief that “I can dance” which will improve my short term performance. I am highly motivated by the people I train alongside. This is a challenging example, because unlike social dancing where community is built into the form, it is easy to take a ballet class with minimal contact with other dancers. I’ve taken to reminding myself of particular people prior to any class that I am fond of, and look forward to dancing alongside. Even if those people aren’t actually in class, the act of reminding myself that they are likely to be there is sufficient to create the feeling of community, and generate increased excitement for the upcoming class.
Next, let’s look at the Florida priming example. This is different then my previous examples which related to internally held beliefs. People respond to Florida priming no matter what age they are. My goal is to trigger performance improvement, so here are some external beliefs that I don’t necessarily hold, which could lead to increased performance:
- Learn quickly
- Move smoothly
- Of course, this list could be limitless, but these are a couple relevant to what I am currently working on in ballet.
Whether or not I hold these beliefs about myself, how can I find examples or even cues of people doing these things? For example the idea of “learning quickly” is not one I hold about my ability to learn choreography. I am not as quick at learning new choreography as many dancers I training alongside. To cue behavior in accordance with different set of people, I could think of examples of a dancer watching a new movement one time, and then executing it perfectly. A simple solution here would be to find a video of this occurring, or even record a friend going through this acquisition process. Reminding myself that others acquire choreographic knowledge quickly, without reference to my own perceived inadequacies, would be extremely beneficial. Beauty and elegance are two other beliefs more easily triggers. Simply looking at a couple of the images of very talented dancers on the walls of my studio prior to class reminds me of another’s capacity to dance embodying those traits. Since looking at the pictures in no way reminds me of myself (and any beliefs that I lack those traits) will prime me just like the Florida priming example, but with a positive outcome.
I’ve just begun to explore priming as a tool for increased performance. Most of the quantitative research done on priming looks at the result of exposure to specific stimuli, without a specific desire to improve performance. If we simply take some of the same principles and ask how we might use what is known about priming to change quickly, the results can be rapid and make a substantial performance difference.
For more in depth exploration on I suggest Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow as well as his actual published research.