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Improving Happiness at Work: Positive Practices and the Power of the Positive Question

The Power of Positive Priming

Intuitively I've always understood that when we think we are stupid, we are less likely to learn.  I'm well aware that my struggles with math throughout my lifetime began with a 3rd grade teacher who was convinced that girls couldn't work with numbers. But it's interesting to see how brain science now supports something many of us have experienced.

From an article in Time Magazine on the optimism bias:

Cognitive neuroscientist Sara Bengtsson devised an experiment in which she manipulated positive and negative expectations of students while their brains were scanned and tested their performance on cognitive tasks. To induce expectations of success, she primed college students with words such as smart, intelligent and clever just before asking them to perform a test. To induce expectations of failure, she primed them with words like stupid and ignorant. The students performed better after being primed with an affirmative message.

Examining the brain-imaging data, Bengtsson found that the students' brains responded differently to the mistakes they made depending on whether they were primed with the word clever or the word stupid. When the mistake followed positive words, she observed enhanced activity in the anterior medial part of the prefrontal cortex (a region that is involved in self-reflection and recollection). However, when the participants were primed with the word stupid, there was no heightened activity after a wrong answer. It appears that after being primed with the word stupid, the brain expected to do poorly and did not show signs of surprise or conflict when it made an error.

A brain that doesn't expect good results lacks a signal telling it, "Take notice — wrong answer!" These brains will fail to learn from their mistakes and are less likely to improve over time. Expectations become self-fulfilling by altering our performance and actions, which ultimately affects what happens in the future. (My emphasis)

This has serious implications for those of us in the training biz. How well do we prime learners to feel successful before they get started? I'm not talking about reminding people of previous learning on the topic or showing how this new topic is linked to something they already understand. I'm talking about priming learner's brains to be focused on themselves as capable, motivated learners. This can be especially challenging when working with staff in more toxic work environments.

One of the reasons I've become interested in appreciative inquiry is because of its power to prime our brains for the positive, thus allowing us to see more positive solutions and learn new skills. Last week I did a training for a group of individuals who are in a difficult work environment that isn't generally supportive of learning. I've typically experienced challenges in getting these learners motivated, often because training has only been offered to them when there's a perception that they are doing their jobs wrong. They feel defeated before they even attend the session.

This time I decided to begin the training with an exercise designed to prime them for the positive. First, I asked them to think about the best customer service experience they'd ever had as a customer. Something where they felt that they'd received amazing customer service. Then, using Christine Martell's VisualsSpeak tools, I had them find a few visuals that illustrated their stories. Finally, I had them share their images and tell us the story of their experience. 

The change in the energy of the room was palpable. They got excited about their stories and easily saw how the themes they identified were applicable to their own work. They were primed to begin learning and were engaged and positive throughout the training. 

Clearly the research indicates that positive questions and stories can prime our brains for learning. The question is, how deliberately are we doing this when we design training? And what are the challenges when we are working with staff who may operate in a less than positive environment? 


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This is extremely interesting indeed! I'm thinking that priming (and preparing/prestudy) is in someways equally important as the course itself. In a matter of "remember to do it" I mean. Without the course nothing happens obviously... But this should be a natural task to complete when creating the training itself.

Henke, agreed that priming may be in many ways more important than some of the course itself. Certainly, I begin to believe that what we do to prime learners on a regular basis also becomes very important. I'm feeling like I need to look in a more deliberate way at how I'm working with learners to do this priming task more regularly. Thanks for the great comment!

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