While discussing the influence of small cues on our thought process, Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds reflects on several studies that show how our environment can shape our thoughts and actions. Wiseman explains the impact of small cues and the affect known as priming. Priming involves triggers that lead to particular actions or thoughts becoming more prevalent or likely to occur. A sneeze is a primer for someone to say bless you, the word hot is a primer for the word dog, and the Family Feud tv show is an experiment in priming with a cue or phrase priming responses from contestants.
Wiseman explains ways in which many situations in our lives can be impacted by primers, “Put people in front of a computer wallpaper showing dollar symbols, and they behave in a more selfish and unfriendly way, giving less money to charity and sitting farther away from others. Give interviewers a cup of iced coffee, and unknowingly they rate interviewees as colder and less pleasant. Add a faint smell of cleaning fluid to the air, and people tidy up more thoroughly. Put a briefcase on a table during a meeting and people become more competitive. The evidence points to a little counting for a lot.”
I find the idea of priming and our environment as very interesting since subtleties can have such a big impact on our actions. I think most people can understand the situation where you are trying to cut back on sweets, yet in the office break room you see a pink box, and suddenly sugary foods are the only thing you can focus on. These small cues seem to have a large impact on our behavior, and they seem to put decisions and actions beyond our control.
Changing our behavior is difficult, and the study by Wiseman shows that there are ways in which we can use priming for positive results. We can manipulate our environment to produce specific changes in our behavior, and help us act in ways we would like. I am currently working through Dave Ramsey’s book on household money management and financial freedom, The Total Money Makeover, and one thing that Ramsey mentions is the myth that we only need a greater will power to change our actions and to achieve the goals we want. What Ramsey explains, and what Wiseman’s research backs up, is that we are all motivated to make smart decisions (in this case financially) but we do not have systems in place to help us do so. In the case of priming, we could say that our environment is set up to make it easy for us to go into debt and spend money, especially since our culture and environment lacks primers that lead us to save money and work on budgeting.
I think that it is worth the effort to study and practice simple priming methods that may help one create an environment that stimulates the desired lifestyle, actions, or thoughts that one is hoping to produce. Understanding that small cues in our environment can have a big impact on our minds can help us feel better about ourselves when we have trouble reaching a goal, and can give us easy first steps to reach the goals we set out for.
In his letter for James Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, William T. Vollmann lists as number seven on his list of 21 pieces of advice the following quote, “Don’t buy anything or use anything you don’t need or want. Try to do constructive things with cash.” This little piece of advice seems so simple at face value, but if we really incorporated it into our lives we would see that it can have a deep impact on our lives. Focusing on what we buy and not buying things that could be labeled as junk will help us eat healthier, de-clutter our homes, and even focus on donating to better charities. Budgeting is one of the clearest ways to limit spending money on unnecessary things, but increased self awareness is a crucial step for anyone who wants to truly identify their spending habits. I just finished reading The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey, and in his book he recounts many stories of individuals and couples sitting down to budget for the first time, and being shocked at just how much money they were spending towards things they did not need or remember. The big takeaway from the power of budgeting is the self-awarenss that a good budget creates, and the control that planning and budgeting provides for our lives. Trying to avoid purchasing things we don’t need or use our money in frivolous and mindless ways will lead to more control and security in our lives.
It is easy to go to the grocery store and come home with a variety of things that you did not intend to buy, and this is not always a bad thing. Getting to the store and realizing that you need sunscreen and throwing some in the cart as you pass the display can be a good thing, while I would argue, throwing an extra candy bar or soda in the cart is not. In this example I am comparing the impulse to buy a skin protector, something that helps us be health, with a junk food that is not healthy. This argument is a little flawed, but accurately identifies situations where we can be spending money on things that will not help us, and will just leave us with a little less cash. One candy bar on its own does not mean anything, but combined with soda, cookies, and other junk foods the candy bar can become a dangerous habit that we spend money on each time we go to the store. Self awareness is required to see what you are buying at the grocery store and limit the junk you buy and the excuses you develop for buying that junk.
Vollmann’s ideas about consciously spending our money and making sure that we use our money wisely extends beyond simple shopping. I recently listened to an episode of the podcast Point of Inquiry where host Josh Zepps interviewed Peter Singer about morality. What surprised me was to hear that the majority of people who donate to charity do so on an impulse basis with little to no thought of the impact factor behind their donation. Any time we donate to charity we feel better and justified for our action, but we rarely take the time to identify how impactful the charity is, and how our money will benefit the programs or lives of those the charity aims to assist. Random and unconscious donations to charity may not be harmful and may be one of the constructive uses of cash that Vollmann encourages, but according to Singer we could still be doing more with our resources. I think that in the end Vollmann, through his quote about money, is speaking about making the most of the resources we have. Singer shows us that even one of our most coveted resources is often misused even when we try to do something positive. Searching for the most constructive use of our time, effort, and cash can help us feel more fulfilled, and it will allow us to have a grater impact on the planet. I followed the podcast by reading Singer’s book, The Most Good You Can Do, and was struck by the idea of intentionally donating money by consciously saving and making valuable contributions to charities that have the greatest impact on the lives and suffering of the global poor. One of the biggest surprises of affective altruism as Singer has named it, is the meaning that impactful donations of time and resources provide to those who are wealthy enough to give back. Affective altruists who make meaningful donations feel more connected with their community and those around them, and feel like they are making a greater difference in the world.