In Brief

Subtle reminders of our significant others can affect how persistently we pursue goals, either spurring us to work harder or sapping our will to continue, according to a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 84, No. 4).

In five experiments involving more than 300 undergraduates, University of Wisconsin-Madison psychologist James Y. Shah, PhD, tested whether subliminally priming participants with the names of friends and relatives would affect how persistently they pursued their goals. The goals Shah chose to study were "verbal fluency," "analytic reasoning" and "functional creativity"--skills that would seem important to participants, but not ones that they were likely to have been actively pursuing before they entered the lab.

Shah found that briefly flashing the name of a close significant other could inspire participants to work harder at anagram tasks they had been told measured those skills. The results suggest that our behavior is influenced by reminders of the significant people in our lives, even when we are not aware of them, says Shah.

Not all participants reacted similarly to the primes, however. The word "father," for example, boosted persistence on a task that was supposed to measure "verbal fluency," but only in participants who said they were close to their fathers and who believed that their fathers considered that skill important.

Under certain conditions, the primes could also reduce goal persistence. Priming participants with the names of close significant others for whom "verbal fluency" or "analytical reasoning" was unimportant caused them to give up more quickly. Flashing the name of a significant other associated with one goal ("functional creativity") while participants worked on a task associated with a different goal ("verbal fluency") could also reduce persistence, though it did so only for participants who believed that the two goals were unrelated.

The priming effect was weakest when the significant other was associated with many goals, rather than just one or two. "If your mother wants you to do 15 things, then seeing her won't necessarily bring any one of those things into your mind," explains Shah. "But if she's always harping on one or two things, those things are much more likely to come to mind."

In one part of the study, the primes were presented for only 10 milliseconds, or a hundredth of a second--a time period far too short for participants to become consciously aware of them. That such brief, unconscious primes were able to influence behavior suggests that more obvious primes--photographs, voices or physical presence--might be even more effective, says Shah.