How Our Minds Play Tricks On Us In Relationships

These studies show that regardless of our intentions or how we think we want to act, we are strongly influenced by what is on our minds when we are acting in the world.
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As we live our lives, we develop impressions about the people in it. These people fulfill certain roles with which we come to associate them. When we see these people, we see more than who they are. We see who they are plus a collage of memories that we have stored in our memory caves as time has passed. Not only this, but how we see them is strongly influenced by what just happened to us. If, for example, we saw a violent movie in which people are being killed left, right and center, if we heard a sudden loud noise in the house we may be startled. If, however, that sudden loud noise occurred on a day in which you were barbecuing, having a glass of wine and talking to friends while everyone you loved and knew was around you, it would not have the same effect on you as after that violent movie. What is going on in our brains when this happens? Why does a violent movie make loud sounds more frightening, and what, if any, is the impact of this phenomenon when it comes to human relationships?

In our daily lives, we have different kinds of relationships. Mothers, friends, best friends and co-workers are all different people. We come to associate them with many different things depending on our experience with them. For some people, for example, "mother" may mean "someone whom one wants to make proud" and "friend" may mean "...someone whom one has a deep understanding of...". Because of these associations, we may feel more motivated around our mothers and around our friends, we may feel more inclined to listen. This, in itself, is not so surprising. However, what would you say if I told you that if I "brainwashed" you subtly by talking about your mother for a few minutes, that this would influence how you acted subsequently. Or if I talked about your friend, that would make you ct differently thereafter. Not so likely? Well, consider this.

In a study published in the Journal of Personal and Social Psychology [1], asking people about their friends made them more likely to help someone after this question session than if they were asked about co-workers. Also, if you asked them about their best friends for a few minutes, they were more willing and likely to understand the motives of a neutral person. This phenomenon of "brainwashing" (called "priming" in experimental psychology) has been shown to extend to mothers as well. Thinking about one's mother led to people assessing a neutral person "Mark" as being more motivated, and if they associated mothers with "making them proud", they performed better at verbal tests (and tried harder), again, without intending to do this. In all of these instances, people had no idea and in fact, thought that there was no way that they could be influenced in this way, but they were.

These studies show that regardless of our intentions or how we think we want to act, we are strongly influenced by what is on our minds when we are acting in the world. Our mental pictures of relationships and associations with them are carried unconsciously and influence our choices strongly. The more we think about these relationships, the more likely they are to influence the way we behave.

What are the implications of this in our daily lives? If we expose ourselves to priming stimuli (things that provoke strong memories of relationships and their associations in the past or present), we can add unconscious power to our motives and actions. If we believe, for example, that it important to make our mothers proud, we will behave in accordance with this idea. When it comes to succeeding, this is very positive, as it will activate unconscious brain energy to facilitate success.

However what if you carry around a sense of your mother's disapproval? The chances are, you are less likely to carry out that activity. If you have chosen a profession that your mother would disapprove of, for example, and if it was important to you to make your mother proud, your unconscious brain would come up with the inertia that was needed to stop you from being successful at this. This would be your brain's automatic reaction. That's the bad news. The good news is that "automatic reactions" are actually flexible and can be changed with practice.

In the instance of choosing a job that your parents might disapprove of, you might for example, think about making a spouse proud if they were in favor of your job. With practice, this could become the new mental picture and association that you formed.

Forming mental pictures is automatic. Changing them requires some effort. When you find that you are stuck in life, you might want to examine if you are a victim of old mental pictures and associations that you are carrying about in your brain. It is often the case that despite our best efforts, we are unable to succeed at new ventures.

I see this often in people who have worked for companies for a long time and then try to be successful as entrepreneurs. Even for the most intelligent and creative people, getting their brains to cooperate with their intentions is an arduous and challenging task. This is because their intentions have other unconscious partners in their prior relationships that make it impossible to honor them in the present. To be successful, they have to undo these past relationships and form new associations that can stimulate actions that are congruent with their intentions.

Priming is the brain's peculiar propensity to act in accordance with its most recently activated mental pictures. Being aware of this may help you construct maps to delve into your unconscious so that you can disentangle yourself from powerful negative unconscious associations. Also, awareness of priming can help us tap into the existing positive associations so that we can thrive with as little effort as possible. If you are stuck in your life, consider this question: what is priming you at this point?

1.Fitzsimons, G.M. and J.A. Bargh, Thinking of you: nonconscious pursuit of interpersonal goals associated with relationship partners. J Pers Soc Psychol, 2003. 84(1): p. 148-64.

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