Sunday, August 24, 2014

Priming as Performance Preparation

The recent post took a look at the power of visualization as a performance tool.  Interestingly, however, it appears that not all people are equally endowed with visualization skills.  Those who possess strong imagery skills are most likely to benefit from visualization methods, particularly if there is a good fit between the type of imagery used and the desired performance outcome.  How can professionals access peak performance if they are not especially skilled at generating visual and kinesthetic images?

Priming is well known in the research literature as a phenomenon in which exposure to an initial stimulus subconsciously impacts the response to a subsequent one.  This has become a marketing staple, as images and messages can cue people to purchase a variety of products and services.  The creativity study described in a recent post is an excellent example of priming:  spending time thinking like a child primed later, creative thought processes.

What if behavioral priming, as in the creativity example, is the body equivalent of mental imagery?  We can rehearse a desired behavior through visualization, or we can rehearse it by performing preparatory tasks that call upon the relevant skills.  For example, if I want to make sure I have a caring, loving conversation with my spouse about a sensitive topic, I could start by spending caring, loving time with my children.  If I want to enact a plan in a disciplined manner, I could start my day by enacting my morning routine in a regimented fashion.

The power of visualization is generally attributed to the fact that vivid imagery acts as a surrogate reality.  Performing an act in the mind has the power of performing it in real life, both for purposes of rehearsal and motivation.  There may be equally powerful ways of generating surrogate reality, however.  When we create behavioral priming exercises, the preparatory activities call upon desired thoughts, feelings, and skills and ready them for use in a future situation.  In that sense, we can think of behavioral priming as a form of "workout", where we strengthen the "muscles" of specific, desired action sequences.

If we imagine using priming consistently, then we can see what we're really doing is building and reinforcing habit patterns.  Performing smaller activities that recruit desired modes of thought, feeling, and behavior is an excellent way of improving access to those modes for larger, more difficult activities.  That is why coaches of athletic teams typically push their players to perform in challenging practice situations and why soldiers will drill under conditions of live fire:  priming good performance in practice increases the likelihood of good performance in real time.

From a priming perspective, what we enact in the heat of battle is a function of what we have accessed during our preparation.  If our preparation is haphazard, we have actually primed for haphazard performance.  If our preparation requires focus, we prime our ability to concentrate.  Structuring our preparation time as priming time helps ensure that practice indeed makes perfect.  In an important sense, we are always priming our brains:  the key is turning our priming into task-relevant preparation.

Further Reading:  The Psychology of Preparation