Priming the Pump and Other Reasons To “Act As If”

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Guest Post by Kathy Gottberg

“The best way to create what you want is to become the person who already has it.” ~ Jeannett Maw

Anyone who has studied positive thinking, New Thought or the Law of Attraction understands the concept of acting “as if.”   You know—acting with confidence and grace even when you’re shaking in your boots, or putting a smile on your face and acting happy even when you woke up feeling terrible.  Many people believe that those actions can actually lead to their desired results.  But while “faking it until you make it” might sound like nothing more than an unsubstantiated urban legend, plenty of evidence now proves the process is beneficial in dozens of ways.

Several weeks ago I mentioned that I was reading a book called Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman.  While explaining in great deal how we all think, Kahneman describes what he calls the “priming effect.”  Priming is one way that our brain processes information very efficiently.  Simply put, when we see or hear something that we recognize, we automatically make quick and easy associations.  If I say summer—you think “hot.”  If I say chocolate—most of you will smile.  If we pay attention we can catch ourselves in these fast “associations” all the time, but the tricky thing is—we make them 24-7 whether we are aware of them or not.   This process of “priming” leads our brains to almost automatically think or act or believe things when they appear connected—just like when we act as if.

For example, there is a study done where young adults read the words: Florida, forgetful, bald, grey and wrinkled.  Next, they were asked to put those words in a sentence.  Afterwards an observer measured them walking from one location to another and they all moved significantly slower than those who read words that were randomly chosen.  So, just by reading words related to aging they moved slower.  In other words, what you read affects you.  What you hear affects you.  And what you say affects you—even when you aren’t aware of it—mentally, emotionally and even physically.

These and other studies like it use the brain’s ability to make “reciprocal links” for everything that it processes.  For example, by merely putting a pencil in your mouth sideways, that movement approximates a smile.  When participants were asked to rate how funny cartoons were while reading with the pencil smile in their mouths, they rated the cartoons as more amusing.  Yes, even a fake smile can make things seem brighter because of reciprocal linking.

In contrast, if you hold one end of your pen in your mouth pointing straight out, this movement approximates a frown.  Students that were quizzed about cartoons while holding the pen in a frown rated them much less funny.  Other studies suggest that when you bunch your brows together hard in determination, you tend to see things more with more seriousness and emotional upset. What is the expression on your face right now—smile or frown?  That expression on your face is reciprocally linked to how you feel about this article.

Another series of experiments asked people to nod their heads up and down in a yes type movement while listening to an editorial.  Another set of participants listened to the same material but were asked to shake their heads slowly from side to side as though to express a no type movement.  When it was over both groups were asked to rate the material.  The majority of those who had the yes gesture rated the material far more favorably than those with the no gesture.

Kahneman points out repeatedly that our brains automatic ability to be affected by things we see and hear threatens “our self image as conscious and autonomous authors of our judgments and choices.”    He sites examples of how some people are influenced to vote differently depending upon the location of the polling station.   Especially disturbing was how people who are “primed” to ideas of money and wealth automatically began responding in a much more “independent” manner.  Money primed people were repeatedly less willing to help others and showed a “reluctance to be involved with others, to depend on others or to accept demands from others.”   In a culture that routinely surrounds itself with money and a money-related focus, it is no surprise that our behavior and attitudes are affected in ways that reflect high individualism.

Other priming studies in the book show that when people are exposed to fear-induced ideas or their own mortality, they are drawn to the appeal of authoritarian ideas that appear reassuring.   If our brains automatically prime themselves with the images, sounds and concepts we expose ourselves to on a regular basis, one can easily imagine how watching TV news with its consistent diet of negativity would focus our entire lives on a certain trajectory.  It is also disturbing to learn how we can be unconsciously manipulated without our awareness.

But the book isn’t the only place that studies like this show that “priming” our brain can help us to “act as if.”  For example, an article in Prevention Magazine several years ago pointed out that when students were encouraged to act like extroverts for 15 minutes in a group discussion (even if they didn’t feel like it) they felt much more assertive, energetic and happier as a result.   Deepak Chopra in his book Authentic Aging cities the provocative study where seniors were invited to a location for a weekend and exposed to everything that came from the days of their youth.  After one weekend of submersing themselves in that environment of their youth they tested much more healthy—physically, mentally and emotionally—than before their experiment.

Anywhere people access water by pumping it out of a well, it is sometimes necessary to prime the pump to get it flowing.  Priming is putting liquid into the pump to displace any air and get it moving.  While we don’t usually think of “priming a pump” in the same context as “acting as if,” the similarities are obvious.  When we “act as if,” we are priming our consciousness to move in a new and unrestricted way in the direction of our intentions.

I find it important to remember that this is happening in our minds every single day whether we are aware of it or not.  There may be some people who don’t like the idea that the practice of “acting as if” sounds like positive thinking or worse, metaphysical mumbo jumbo.  But there is far too much evidence showing that our brains are automatically processing in this way already, so if we aren’t using it to our advantage—it is likely being used to our disadvantage.  If we consistently focus on common fears in our culture, (do I really need to list them?) then we likely are “priming” our hearts and souls to that kind of an experience.

Okay, so it’s not always easy to stay conscious and aware.  And we know it’s not always easy to act as if things are going great when our heart is breaking.  But if our minds can be primed to start thinking in a way that heals us and lifts us up out of the muck, isn’t that worth trying?  Besides, I never said that living SMART 365 was supposed to be easy—only that it was achievable—and very likely to create a world that is sustainable, meaningful, aware, responsible and thankful.

Kathy Gottberg is one of our blog’s 2013 Blog Contest Winners.  Kathy has been writing on all sorts of topics for over 25 years and has a couple of published books and hundreds of articles.   In her blog, Smart Living 365,  Kathy passionately writes about exploring ideas and experiences that help to create a meaningful, sustainable, compassionate and rewarding life.  Check out Kathy’s personal website for more info at:, and her blog at:


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Wendy McCance

Wendy McCance is a Michigan based freelance writer and social media consultant. Wendy has gained attention as the founder of the popular blog Searching for the Happiness which can be viewed in 6 local papers online, including the Oakland Press.The combination of writing skills and social media knowledge is what makes Wendy such a powerhouse to work with. Stay tuned for opportunities to advertise, guest post and as always, have your questions answered.

To contact Wendy McCance about a writing assignment, interview or speaking engagement, please email her at: [email protected]

4 thoughts on “Priming the Pump and Other Reasons To “Act As If”

  1. Very useful article. I am trying to start a blog website and am finding tremendous negativity in my thoughts. I guess its the fear of failure thing. I am going to try your advice and think myself as already a success. Thanks again

    • Hi Suzie…thanks for your comment. I’m glad you found the article useful…it helps ME too, every single time I re-read it! I urge you to face your reluctance and go ahead and start your blog. The benefits you’ll get from doing it are extremely useful no matter how successful it does or doesn’t become….it’s one of those, “it’s the journey, not the destination.” Of course with that said I also know that the “acting as if” keeps you headed in the direction that you are hoping to go-so that even if you don’t quite end up where you thought-it’s always a beneficial thing. ~Kathy

  2. I loved the nodding head experiment. It does show us how what we don can translated into to what we think.

    It’s really isn’t easy but if we keep at it we do see some positive results in our lives. The key is to keep at it and not be upset and give up because we don’t always succeed, especially when we aren’t alway able to be in the present moment. Just my thoughts. :-)

    • Hi Susan…you are so right that it isn’t necessarily easy….but either way I believe we are always creating habits and “training” our mind to focus on either the things we hope to experience-or the things we are worried about. I’ve spent a large chunk of the past 25 years including practices like this into my life and while they may not work as well as I would like 100% of the time-they work enough most of the time that I find them worth the effort. As you say, a big “key is to keep at it and not be upset and give up because we don’t always succeed.” Thanks for your thoughts ~Kathy

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