Primed for Success

By: Brian Hengesbaugh

How can we enhance goal setting and increase performance? Prime the mind with effort.

Priming is the process of using a stimulus to subconsciously activate stored knowledge and psychological processes. As an example, if you were to read the following sentence “The fire truck ran through the intersection, ignoring the stop sign” and then were asked to think of a color, any color, you would most likely think of red. At a neuronal and cognitive level, our minds hold networks of interconnected ideas, and activating one node in the network, primes the other nodes for activation. We can capitalize upon this to improve performance.

In an experiment conducted by Latham and colleagues, pictures of weightlifters lifting various weights were used as the stimulus to prime participants with different levels of effort for the upcoming task of pressing on a scale. Before performing the task, participants either saw a picture of a weightlifter lifting 20 lbs (easy goal), 200 lbs (moderate goal), or 400 lbs (difficult goal). The study found that participants who were primed with the picture of the weightlifter lifting 400 lbs (difficult goal) exerted more effort during the task than the participants who were primed with the moderate and easy goals. A following experiment by Latham, which used a brainstorming task, showed that participants primed with the difficult goal consciously chose to set more challenging goals for themselves and performed better than the participants primed with easier goals. 

What about using goal priming in the workplace? Shantz and Latham primed workers at a call center with a picture of a woman winning a race. Employee performance was then measured based on the amount of pledged donation dollars raised during the subsequent three-hour shift. When compared to the control group that did not receive a prime, the group of primed workers raised significantly more money than the control group. Latham and Piccolo, later showed that priming the call center workers with an image of three smiling individuals on headsets, improved performance above and beyond the general success prime.

More research is needed in order to thoroughly understand the subconscious processes of goal priming. Bargh’s automaticity model, which explains the relationship between primed goals and performance, has been criticized for a lack of theoretical framework describing the mechanisms that link the subconscious priming stimulus to behavioral changes. Latham and his colleagues look to fill this void with Goal Setting Theory – an explanation of the positive relationship between the difficulty of a consciously set goal and performance towards that goal, with factors such as effort, persistence, choice, strategy, and conscientiousness used to mediate the relationship. 

As research continues, two key takeaways remain: 
(1)    Effort levels can be primed
(2)    Increased effort leads to increased performance

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