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Emphasise the positive – tell people what you want

Stella Collins, Director, Stellar Learning

If you’ve ever seen a Derren Brown programme, you will have come across the concept of priming, which suggests that things in the environment of which we are unaware can cause us to behave in particular ways.

And how often have you written ‘Don’t hesitate to contact me’ or told someone ‘Don’t forget to …’? What are you really saying? People struggle to process a negative (it makes more work for the brain) and research indicates that it may actually increase the behaviour you are trying to avoid.

There are lots of excellent studies on the topic, and this one from Yale University is particularly about prohibitive language and signs.

The researchers at Yale tested two groups of smokers. Both groups were asked to look at a series of photos of everyday situations and judge whether they were taken by amateur or professional photographers. One group was shown photos that included pictures with inconspicuous ‘No Smoking’ signs; the equivalent pictures shown to the other group had the ‘No Smoking’ signs discreetly edited out.

It turned out that the presence of the ‘No Smoking’ signs, whether people noticed them or not, significantly increased the tendency to ‘approach’ smoking-related stimuli. Although the Yale researchers stress that they need to do more real-world research, it seemed the ‘No Smoking’ signs were more likely to make the smokers crave cigarettes than the absence of signs.

Why is this relevant to you?

When giving instructions, tell people what you want them to do rather than what you’re trying to avoid.

Check with yourself: if you prohibit things, could you be increasing the behaviour you are trying to eliminate?

What unconscious messages might people see that are in direct opposition to what they need to learn or do?

How could you constructively use priming to deliver key messages in training?

Get more ideas on priming brains at our three-day event, How to be a brain-friendly trainer, from April 22nd to 24th.

If you want the full research paper from Yale, you can read it here.

And if you would like to know more about training with the brain in mind or about our other learning programmes, visit or email Stella.

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