Priming and the Placebo Effect

Article length: 470 words

Reading time: 3-5 minutes

I'm currently reading "You Are the Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter" by Joe Disenza. This morning two interesting studies popped up, both talking about priming. I've talked about priming before and it's effect on likelihood of college students cheating.

Joe describes priming as, "when someone, someplace, or something in our environment triggers all sorts of associations that are hardwired into our brains, causing us to act in certain ways without being conscious of what we're doing."

The priming effect can occur in a variety of situations, as you'll see with our examples, it occurs when testing intelligence and expectations to an exercise routine. 

In a 2006 study [1] , researchers had 220 female college students read research reports (that were fake) that claimed men had a 5 percent advantage over women in math performance. They then divided these participants into two groups, group 1 was told this advantage was due to recently discovered genetic factors. Essentially, there's nothing they can do about it. Group 2 was told the advantage resulted from the way teachers stereotype girls and boys in elementary school. In this case, the advantage is a result of a bias, not pure ability. Both groups then took a math test. The women who'd read that men had a genetic advantage scored lower than those told the advantage was due to stereotype bias. 

When they were primed to think that their disadvantage was inevitable, the women performed as if they truly had a disadvantage. 

A similar effect was seen in a 1993 study [2] that looked at priming and the outcomes of exercise. 48 subjects participated of 3-90 minute aerobic workout sessions per week. Group 1 was told that the exercise routine was designed to improve both their aerobic capacity and psychological well-being. Group 2 served as the control group and were only told of the physical benefits of the exercise. At the end of the 10 weeks, both groups improved their aerobic capacity, but only group 1, showed a significant boost in self-esteem. 

Their awareness and expectation of the program caused more favorable results. 

Could the priming placebo effect occur when someone begins a new workout routine touted by a famous fitness professional? If that same program was written by someone else would they be as excited and work as hard? Likely not. 

You can use the priming placebo effect in your favor by having high expectations. Buy into your coaches, training, nutrition and mobility programs. Think they're the best out there, even if it's a bit naive. Remember, the placebo effect doesn't say the effects aren't real, it only says the effect isn't due to the cause you think. Whether you get stronger because 4x6 is actually better better than 3x10 or whether you BELIEVE it's better doesn't change the outcome, you still got stronger. 


1 - http://www.medicine.mcgill.ca/epidemiology/hanley/tmp/Applications/WomenMath.pdf

2 - http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8475229


Power of Priming

Article length: 600 words

Reading time: 3-5 minutes

By now you know what it takes to obtain the fitness results you desire. A healthy diet + structured training program + hard work + consistency is the recipe for success. The hard part is making those decisions everyday. 

What if there was a simple trick you could use to make those decisions easier?

In 2008, Dan Ariely, Nina Mazar and On Amir conducted a research study on students at the Harvard School of Business. The goal was to see how priming the students would affect their likelihood of cheating. 

The students were asked to answer as many math problems in 5 minutes (AMRAP.) Afterwards, one student would be randomly selected and earn $10 for every correct answer. These are smart kids, so 5 minutes of work and the lucky winner could earn some serious dough. The final twist, the students were allowed to grade their own papers. Good ol' honor system. 

The difference comes on how the two groups were primed. We will call group A "general primed" and group B "ten commandment primed."

Before the quiz, group A was asked to write down 10 books they remembered reading in high school.

Group B was asked to recite as many of Ten Commandments from the Bible as they could. 

The results? 

Group A (general primed) scored 33 percent higher than average. Group B (ten commandment primed) scored lower than average.  

Did you guess it? Group A cheated, group B did not. All of the students had equal opportunity to cheat and the same financial incentive to do so. The only difference is how they were primed immediately prior to the quiz. The best part, the students were not aware of the priming. 

Fitness folk can learn from this study. How you prime yourself can make decisions easier or harder. Of course, some of the students who read the Ten Commandments still cheated and some of those who recited past books didn't cheat. But on average, the priming of honesty in the Ten Commandments had a major impact on their decision.  

How can this benefit you? 

What is the first thing you read in the morning? Is it a book that interest you and sparks creativity or Tweet about a reality TV show. One primes you for creative thoughts, the other is mindless nonsense. 

Who are the people in your training environment? Are they pursuing similar competitive goals as yourself or do they spend most of their gym time gossiping and dicking around? 
Want to be successful? Prime yourself for success with whatever the goal is. 

How I Prime

I have a simple test. If this person, thing, service, etc. helping me or hurting me in building the life I want? If it helps, add more of it. If it's hurting, remove it. 

  • Watch training of lifters I inspire to lift like before training
  • Don't communicate with people who are complainers, unless you want to be primed to complain 
  • Unfollow anyone on social media that constantly bitches
  • Use of multiple apps, my favorite is Momentum. A Google Chrome extension that prompts me of the single most important task of the day every time I open a new tab (picture below) 
  • Daily prompts via the Five-minute journal

Getting Started

Write down three ways in which you can prime yourself for success and start doing them now. Of course it can be fitness related, but this can work with any aspect in life. 

Like this article? You may like 

Sensory Deprivation (Float Tank) - My First Experience

Article length: 1,600 words

Reading time: 5-8 minutes

Take home: My first experience gave more questions than it answered. Sensory deprivation is a critical tool for stress-reduction and big idea thinking. 

So it's been about 30 hours since my first experience in a sensory deprivation tank - with this post I'm not attempting to convince you of anything or talk about any performance benefits. I'm only going to speak about my experience. Keep in mind these are my initial thoughts and will surely evolve as I float more.  

Also, this article is framed with my experience, not necessarily what you can expect. My experience is unique to the business I went visited, the specific tank used and the overall environment. 


Sensory deprivation tanks are also referred to as "float tanks."