In my quest to understand the effect of the human psyche on negotiations, one of the most influential books I encountered was Thinking Fast & Slow by Nobel Prize winner Professor Daniel Kahneman.  Many different and important psychological effects are described in his book – priming among them. 

As the name suggests, priming is the concept of priming the pump (or your mind in this case) toward a particular frame of thinking in later encounters.  Though the acts that prime your mind occur as part of active thought, you will not be aware of the effect the actions primed. 

For example (and there are many, many examples of how this works in all aspects of thought), individuals asked to build four-word sentences from the words: Florida, forgetful, bald, gray, and wrinkle subsequently walk down a hall slower than individuals given the same task with other words.  Huh?  Yes, walk down the hall slower. 

For another example (and just sticking with two here to make sure I get the idea across) individuals asked to smile while rating the humor of Gary Larson Far Side Cartoons (oh, I miss the Far Side) found them funnier than individuals required to frown while looking at the cartoons.  Just the act of forcing a person to smile or frown affected how the cartoons were reviewed.

A process called associative activation causes us to react to the trigger by bringing in memories and ideas that cascade across our brains and evoking emotions which may further even evoke facial expressions and other reactions.  Imagine the subconscious facial reaction we all make when asked to think about a big heaping pile of cow dung. 

Most importantly, this all happens subconsciously, without any awareness in the person affected.  In fact, subjects actively deny that they have been influenced by any priming effect whatsoever.  When Dr. Kahneman described the concept to his students or audiences at lectures, their reaction is probably like the one you are having now.  NOT ME.  Our minds tell us we are in charge of our thinking. 

Studies of priming effects have yielded discoveries that threaten our self-image as conscious and autonomous actors making our own judgments and choices.  Unfortunately, disbelief is not an option.  The results are real and they are not statistical flukes.  We must accept that the conclusions of the research studies are true – and true about US. 

And, while these concepts are all amusing and thought-provoking, how do they affect people in mediation?

For that, let’s consider the effects of money priming which go way beyond just an interest in money.  Money primed people become more independent and self-reliant.  They become more selfish and show a greater interest in being alone.  Simply put, money primes individualism: a reluctance to be around others, depend on others, or to accept demands of others. 

Right at the moment when cooperation to find a solution that very often involves money is important, people primed to be selfish.  Possibly in a way that harms the process of getting to the point of obtaining that money.

I wish there were a silver bullet to address these issues, but the best we can do is create awareness of things we are otherwise nearly blind to.  As I have indicated in other pieces, however, the best thing you can do is spare me the whip if I bring it up in mediation.