Priming effects

Yesterday afternoon we met Caroline at the curb outside her office, same as always.  I got out to run and she took over the driver’s seat.  Before we parted ways we had our standard debrief: I told her which of the boys had napped (both of them); I updated her on dinner (the sauce was on the stove, she just needed to add the shrimp); and I gave her quick summaries of the boys’ moods—Wally was more fragile than usual and Jay had been a trial since waking up from his nap.

After they’d driven off I started to doubt whether I should have included that last line, about Jay being a trial.  It occurred to me that by telling Caroline that Jay had been difficult with me, maybe I’d increased the odds that he was going to be difficult with her.

I imagined a scenario.  Caroline, Jay and Wally arrive home. Caroline tells Jay he needs to wash his hands and Jay runs away.  If Caroline knew nothing about Jay’s behavior earlier in the day, maybe she’d treat his running away as a trifling incident and exercise forbearance.  But instead, since I’d told her that he’d been a pill all afternoon, maybe she’d see his running away as a serial transgression and come down on him harder, reigniting a vicious cycle that would define the entire time they had together.

One of the first rules of parenting with a partner is transparency: Caroline and I share information about the boys because we trust each other to make judicious use of it and we know it’s important that we work as a team.  So, transparency is king.

That said, Caroline and I have talked about the ways in which we influence each other’s attitudes towards the boys.  At the most general level, we have our narratives about who the boys are—Jay is spirited and willful; Wally is happy and content—and we reinforce those narratives to each other.  While there is truth to those narratives, there’s also a degree to which they become self-fulfilling: Having latched onto the idea that Jay is spirited, we’re more likely to notice (and to share with each other) instances of behavior that confirm our narrative about Jay than instances of behavior that disprove it (an example of what psychologists call “confirmation bias”).

There’s no doubt that Caroline and I each influence how the other interacts with the boys.  On Saturday morning Caroline got up early with Jay and Wally.  A couple hours later I emerged from the sleep cave.  Caroline told me that the morning had been fine, but that she was a little frustrated with Jay.  I’m pretty sure that her admission of frustration primed me to get frustrated ten minutes later when Jay dawdled on the way up to his room to get dressed (which would be consistent with research into priming effects, which has shown, among other things, that when you expose people to rude words prior to an interview you increase the likelihood that they’ll behave rudely in that interview).

Like I said, I don’t think Caroline and I should edit how we talk with each other about the boys.  But it does seem important that we pay attention to how we shape each other’s attitudes towards Jay and Wally, and how those attitudes feedback into Jay and Wally’s behavior.


2 thoughts on “Priming effects

  1. Very interesting, as always. We have experienced the same phenomenon and have also begun to realize that our older son is astute enough now to pick up on the comments we make to one another. I fear that our narrative, if left unexamined, will become self-fulfilling not only for us but also for him and the way he sees himself. Being able to say “this is the kind of child I have” or “that’s just his temperament” can be very liberating and clarifying, but I’m sensing that there are also some dangers associated with making up one’s mind about a child too soon or too decisively. I love how you uncover and explore these nuances of parenting—the things that many of us might dwell on for a moment before getting interrupted and losing the thread. Thank you!

  2. Glad you posted this. This was happening to me and I wasn’t sure what it was, but I now realize the nights that don’t go so well are usually the nights I have been ‘forewarned’ We talked about it tonight, and like you said, I still want to hear how her day is going, but now I can be more aware of how it might affect me. Thanks Kevin!

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