Priming – or Pygmalion effect?
In training it seems to be common sense that my expectation as a trainer can influence learner´s performance. The Pygmalion effect (or Rosenthal effect) showed that students become more successful when the trainer believes that the learner is doing great. This can even happen subconsciously – the trainer does not consciously know what he is doing to support the learner, he is supporting without being aware of it.
The term priming, however, includes that the trainer is directing the students consciously into a specific direction. A specific word, used by the trainer, influences the learner´s opinion, knowledge or attitude. I first noticed this effect in the late 1990s when Robert Dilts used this technique in a seminar. He was using the word “right” several times within a couple of minutes, either in the meaning of the direction or in the meaning of “correct”. Then being asked to mark any spot on a blank sheet of paper the audience mostly put their spot on the right hand side of the paper…
At the same time a study showed that “participants for whom an elderly stereotype was primed walked more slowly down the hallway when leaving the experiment than did control participants” (John A. Bargh, Mark Chen, and Lara Burrows: Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1996, Vol. 71, No. 2, 230-244).
Some youtube videos also illustrate this effect:
The idea to influence the positive approach to learning and specific success is also integrated into the theory of Appreciative Inquiry. Using this method for a positive future within a group or organization the focus is strongly set on successes and positive experiences in order to create ideas for new possibilities in the future (find more about AI in an interesting article by Gervase Bushe: Foundations of Appreciative Inquiry ).
So what does this mean for me as a trainer? Simply said: Be aware of what you are saying. Even a single word may influence your participants` mind set. I remember a trainer who told the audience that the following topic will be very difficult, that it is difficult to learn, that he knows that he has to repeat the content several times… And the result? The group moaned about the training. Whereas I got the result that the participants were in a total different mood of curiosity and energy and that they were convinced that the issue was very easy to understand when I was permanently talking about an easy-to-understand-and-to-practice topic.
Another personal observation is, for example, that if I mention “visualization” and if I obviously pay attention to markers and paper before learners start a little presentation they will create much more colorful and creative flipcharts than in comparison if I do not give any remark about it.
So be aware of what you are saying. Think about how clever people are (they are! It is your task as a trainer to meet their model of their world) and how easy the key message is to understand (it is! It is your task as a trainer to prepare it this way and to know about it). And then you will easily deliver messages about new possibilities and success.
And get success at the end on your own. What an option!