Priming The Mind

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I had a fascinating experience on my last trip to Thailand. As part of the package we had an outing to ride on an elephant. When we arrived I was totally surprised to see this powerful elephant tied with a thin dangly piece of rope to a small stump. I approached the guide and asked if the elephant had ever wondered off? Surely that piece of rope won’t stop him from running away? The guide assured me that the elephant wouldn’t even consider leaving. Now I was curious and inquired why that was so? His response was very revealing. What they do is the tie the elephant to the stump from a very young age. The young calf will try to break free but will be unable. Eventually it stops trying because it no longer believes it can. Even though, as the elephant grows bigger, it has the strength to easily break free, it doesn’t. Why? It has been so conditioned to believe that it is impossible.

I wonder how many people have similar beliefs when it comes to safety? How many of our teams really believe that ‘zero’ is possible? If they don’t, how is that impacting their daily behaviour? One of the biggest challenges leaders face is not to get their people to work safely but to have them believe they can and it is worthy while. It is this change of belief and attitude that will renew people’s commitment to safety and drive a new set of behaviours. Targeting unhelpful behaviours is a futile exercise if people don’t believe. The demand on leaders is to learn the skill of influencing people’s thinking and beliefs towards safety. Changes here will manifest in behaviour changes.

Numerous scientific experiments have been conducted to prove this. One that stands out was facilitated by three Yale University professors. They studied the impact of ‘priming’ on participants with key words. One sample were primed for rudeness. The participants were given a set of words that they needed to unscramble. Each of the words were associated to some form of being abrupt or impatient. Another group did exactly the same exercise but their words reinforced the notion of being polite and respectful.

After they completed the assignment they were asked to go to hand the results to another professor. When they arrive that person was engaged in a conversation that forced to wait. Consistently the participants who were primed with words relating to rudeness became annoyed far quicker than those who were primed for patience. They interrupted the discussion significantly faster than the other group. In fact, consistently the ‘patient’ group waited respectfully for the conversation to conclude, which was as long as ten minutes. This is a startling finding.

Priming is simply influencing someone to a desired outcome. It isn’t brain washing as you cannot give someone a range of words concerning robbing a bank and expect them to go and do it. However, it does trigger the unconscious to think, feel and behave in a particular way. It creates structures of thinking. In the experiment there was a definite change of behaviour when exposed to key words. The professors made the participant’s unconscious obsessed with a state of being. What are you making your people’s unconscious obsessed about? Are you priming them for safety?

Furthermore, if I told you to think of a red balloon there is a high probably that an image of a red balloon popped into your mind. You simply couldn’t help it. Now if I told you not to think of a red balloon, you most probably still thought of the balloon. Likewise, it is essential that leaders talk of what they want instead of what they don’t want.

It is communicating in a way where people cannot help but think of what you have just talk about. It catches their attention and they make it their focus. This is even more important when we understand that the conscious mind can only focus on seven units of information at one time. This is not seven things – it is seven units. A stimulating conversation or driving a car attentively will use all of your seven units. The conscious mind has a very limited processing capacity. We have the ability to influence what our people concentrate on.

What is the image you want your people to see? What attitudes do you want them to embody? Are you communicating it a way that stimulates those thoughts . . . or just the opposite? Are we getting them to focus and concentrate on how to do the task at safely or distracting their seven units?

This is an easy to use tools whereby leaders can on a consistent basis communicate the importance and value of safety. A leader’s attitude has an infectious influence on their teams. In what ways are you intentional priming your team to work safely each day? What is the focus and quality of your pre-shift meetings?


Bargh, J.A., Chen, M. & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of Social Behaviour: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 230-244.

Dr Brett Solomon is the Managing Director of the Kinetic Leadership Institute. He is a recognised expert in combining neuroscience, change management and leadership theory to drive cultural transformation processes. Brett has been part of numerous safety culture change initiatives with the prestigious mining companies Anglo American, Glencore Alloys, Aveng Moolmans, BHP Billiton and Impala Platinum. He has been involved in projects throughout Australia, the petrochemical industry in Saudi Arabia, as well as with Dominion Diamond in Canada. He is also a frequent speaker at NOSHCON the SA and Africa OHS conferences.