Caroline Miller, besides being a coach and motivational speaker, is also known as “the license plate lady” to her children’s friends who have become accustomed to riding in a car with the mom who suddenly yelps at the sight of a unique vanity plate. Sometimes a camera is thrust into their hands with instructions to zoom in and snap a picture. Caroline uses license plates as a teaching tool about the power of words in shaping our moods…
It’s been studied in many settings how important our environment is to our well-being, and part of that is what we happen to read in signs, books, newspapers, or even on television. One interesting study showed that test subjects who unscrambled anagrams with words like “wisdom,” “retired” and “Florida” walked more slowly out of testing rooms than people who unscrambled anagrams with neutral words, for example. And students at the University of Wisconsin who subliminally viewed words like “decision” were more likely to have formed opinions about a subject than people who were subliminally exposed to neutral words, and then presented with a scenario that required a judgment.
Sport psychologists are also aware of the power of words in training environments, such as “succeed,” “win,” and “excellence,” which have been found to boost persistence in goal accomplishment. Dr. Andrew Weil, author of many medical books on alternative health, also recommends that we take a “news fast” for a week in which we don’t read newspapers or watch any disturbing stories on television to gauge the impact on our moods and optimism.
Priming our moods in a negative way can have negative consequences.* For that reason, I encourage all of my clients to pay attention to the words — and images — they see and hear in their daily environments. The priming technique can be used to their advantage leading to behaviors that are pro-social and positive. If you’re not convinced yet that seeing pictures or words can have an impact on your behavior and mood yet, consider the following:
- Princeton students who wrote about the qualities of “superheros” in one research study were more likely to behave like superheros and be prosocial — such as through giving blood – in the weeks after this writing exercise than those who had a different writing topic.
- Individuals who were primed with words pertaining to academic achievement later said they felt emotionally “closer” to significant others who would want them to have those types of achievements, and said that they intended to spend more time with those people in the near future.
- If people observed others doing a task or job while smiling or clearly having a good time, they later said that they had a favorable impression of that job/task, and might consider it for themselves, as well. Is it any wonder that every single commercial on television or in the media shows people having a wonderful time while eating/sleeping/running/engaging in that activity? Or, even, that every single watch ad ever printed has the watch set to ten minutes after ten, which looks suspiciously like a smile to me? 🙂
This brings me back to the importance of license plates. The research is clear that both unconscious and conscious behaviors are changed through primes, so why not fill your life volitionally with words, sounds and people that make you smile, or elicit happy memories, or push you forward to goal accomplishment?
If you sympathize with my ideas, then ordering a unique license plate that makes you smile is a no-brainer. For example, my license plate says, “WEHVFUN,” and I’ve lost count of how many people have smiled when they saw it, or even when I get into my car every day! Is there any price I could put on the tonnage of joy I’ve created simply by telling the world I have fun, and then following through?
I now have a bulging folder of license plate photos that I use when I give presentations on priming. Consider the following license plates I’ve captured on film or that have been sent to me, and imagine how you’d feel if you saw the license plate.
And if you want to take priming with positive words one step further, consider changing your email address to reflect a goal, emotion or activity that is important to you. When I was getting my black belt in Hapkido a few years ago (and breaking bones and getting my butt kicked by teenagers), I changed one of my email addresses to read: LuvHapkido, because I hated Hapkido and wanted to quit every day (I ended up loving it and being the only adult who got a black belt that year — do you think it worked?). Other clever email addresses I’ve seen are: GrittyTurtle, Comeback2004 (an Olympian), BestsellerNextYear, workinprogress, and CloserToJoy.
Use priming words strategically all around you – in your environment, car, license plate, cell phone banner, email address, etc. – and watch what happens in your subconscious and conscious mind. Since it’s been shown that negative words and images can fuel negativity, it’s up to us to flip that equation on its head and do the opposite for our maximum well-being.
In one famous study children avoided eating a cookie so that they could earn another cookie — they closed their eyes or turned their backs! If you don’t see it, it won’t have an impact on you.
If there’s something you’re going to see or hear on a regular basis, at least use priming techniques to elicit the best for yourself. I’ll get you started. Here’s my final thought:
*For sources and summaries of studies, refer to the author’s original article here.
Caroline Adams Miller, MAPP, ACC is a performance coach, author and motivational speaker who specializes in helping people design and achieve their life goals.
Original article first published in Positive Psychology News Daily, the daily news source for positive psychology.