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Motivated Before You Know Why

by Ron Piccolo

You have seen them in nearly every professional setting: those not-so-subtle posters that display visually stimulating photographs complemented by inspiring quotes.  As motivational spins on subliminal messaging, these photos – and a host of other similarly designed gadgets – are meant to encourage perseverance, leadership, teamwork, customer service, and other productive behaviors. The logic suggests that if a concept such as teamwork is encouraged, emphasized, and portrayed in clear view, employees will be more likely to cooperate with others, and less likely to undermine collective effort. When a manager makes his or her preferences explicit (i.e., displayed prominently in the break room), followers get the message and heartily oblige.

But suppose similar motivational cues were presented outside of an employee’s awareness, in subtle, subliminal ways? Suppose important behavior, such as persistence and focus, can be encouraged without explicit communication? Such are the questions researchers in social psychology seek to answer in collaborative research examining the effect of subconscious priming on work behavior.

A broad array of research in social psychology reveals that the subconscious can be influenced by intentional priming, the passive, subtle, and unobtrusive activation of the mind by external stimuli. When introduced in a relevant context, priming can affect thought patterns and instinctive reactions in people who are not aware of the influence exerted by the priming stimuli. Like the emotional system in our brains, the subconscious operates much more rapidly than does the conscious mind. The subconscious, therefore, can affect one’s behavior before he or she even recognizes the reaction. Several recent experimental studies have demonstrated this phenomenon.

In one study, participants were brought into one of two rooms with nothing else except chairs and magazines. One room contained magazines focused on health, fitness, and nutrition, while the other room contained general interest magazines with no particular theme. After a few minutes, participants were offered snacks: chocolate candy or fresh fruit. Overwhelmingly, the students who saw the health magazines chose fruit whereas the students in the other room, more often than not, opted for chocolate. The experimenters concluded that the presence of health magazines, with images of fit and thin models, activated a mental frame associated with healthful living – which then affected snack choice. All of this occurred outside the awareness of participants.

Similarly, participants in a separate study were randomly assigned to one of two groups and asked to complete word search puzzles. One such puzzle included words associated with old age (e.g., retirement, tired, forgetful) while the other puzzle included “neutral” words such as pencil, house, and flower. When finished, participants walked down a long hallway. Little did they know, the walk was being timed. Those in the “old age” group walked more slowly and failed to remember details of the room they just left. According to the researchers, the subconscious was primed to activate concepts associated with stereotypical behaviors of senior citizens – all outside of conscious awareness.

Although these studies are very interesting, they do not have much utility in a professional work environment. Or do they? Gary Latham (University of Toronto) and I attempted to translate this phenomenon with a group of fundraisers in a call center, all of whom had a standard script for how to address potential donors. For one group, we placed a 4” x 4” photo of a woman winning a marathon on the script. The photo was meant to activate concepts associated with “achievement”. For another group, we added a photo of professionals in a call center, which presumably emphasized the importance of the immediate task at hand.  A third group simply had a plain script with no photo. After a full work week, those who had the task-specific photo raised 16% more money than those with the marathon photo and 85% more than those with no photo. This study suggests that the subconscious can be primed for concepts such as achievement and task focus, not simply involuntary, reactionary behaviors with no apparent relevance for work.

In other words, priming might allow employees to be motivated before they even know it!

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