Picture this. You walk from home to the movie theatre which is a block away. You watch a movie that has a very sombre story involving a lot of old people and the problems they face. Then you walk back home. The next day, you do the exact same thing, except this time, you watch an exciting action movie, in which the good guy defeats an evil empire single-handedly. And then you walk back home.
Now let’s say an observer, unbeknownst to you, measured exactly how long you took to walk back home after the movie, on both days. What do you think he most likely found? There is a very strong chance that after you watched the serious movie depicting old age problems, you walked home much slower than you did after you watched the action movie. Surprised? I was too, when I first read of experiments very similar to this in books on behavioral economics such as Predictably Irrational, Freakonomics and Blink.
What happened here? You were “primed” by what you saw in the movies. In a way that you were unaware of, you were influenced by the content of the movies, and that affected the pace with which you walked.
Priming is a term used in psychology that refers to how the effect of one stimulus can affect the reaction to another stimulus or an action later. For example, what you experienced in an earlier part of the day can potentially influence your reactions to other situations later in the day.
If you woke up in the morning and had to deal with something unpleasant — your car had a flat tire, or there was a water leak in your house, or you heard some depressing news on the TV — you would be primed to think of things going wrong. On the other hand, if you woke up and experienced something exciting, you would be primed to look at the brighter side of life. So when you go to work, how you perform that day may well be influenced by how your day started. This would give the expression “bad hair day” a whole new meaning. So you might be better off picking a simple hair style that won’t give you a lot of grief in the morning as you are getting ready for work. 🙂
Now what about working out or meditating early in the day? I would say that these activities are likely to prime you with a positive outlook and may brighten your day. So, early to bed and early to rise, may really make you healthy, wealthy and wise.
What if you did have a flat tire or some other unpleasant thing to deal with in the morning? Does it mean that your day has to be a downer? Not really. Priming works only if you are unaware as to how an experience affects you. So by being aware of this, you can tell yourself that what happened early in the day is one of those things, and that should not affect your day.
What does it mean from a parenting perspective? Waking the kids up early enough so that you don’t have to rush to get them ready, and having some positive thoughts and conversations with them before you send them off to school may actually help them do better that day. I came across this Science Daily article after I had posted this article and was pleasantly surprised to see a similar discussion: Do Children Understand How Feelings Affect School Performance?