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Associative Activation: Pros and Cons of Our Way of Thinking

You're walking down the street, minding your own business when you turn the corner, and you almost bump into someone digging into a trash can -papers flying everywhere, swearing up a storm, causing a ruckus!- Your brain goes into hyperdrive, trying to figure out what the heck is going on and kicks in with a response. You dodge the situation, trying not to attract any attention from this wild person, quietly continuing on your way. But as you walk past, you realize it's an old buddy, happily waving at you while rescuing his watch from the trash – 'I just dropped it when I tossed my coffee cup!'

This just happened to me recently – thankfully- as it got me back in touch with this old friend of mine. And it got me thinking about how our brains work to make sense of the world and how, sometimes, these brain mechanisms, designed to help us out, can goof up or even be a bit dangerous.

The whole deal of how we link the "outside" with our "inside" and the whole process that ties them together is way too massive to cover in this article. But there's this one thing that's worth a few words: how one thought leads to another and how it can get dicey if we're not paying attention.

Associative Activation is all about how one thought or idea in our heads can trigger related thoughts or ideas. This happens because of how our brain organizes info through semantic networks.

Here's a quick breakdown: Semantic networks are like mental filing cabinets, where we organize info in connected structures.

Something like this:

On one side, we've got concepts, like words, ideas, pics, you name it – these are like nodes in the network. They're all connected by links that represent relationships between these concepts.

  • Associations can happen because things are close in space: See two folks near a building's door, and your brain goes, 'They must be waiting to get in.' But reality check – one might be waiting, and the other might not be. Yet, our brain saw them together and linked them in a split second to 'get' what's happening and keep on processing info.

  • Associations also happen because things are close in time. I remember my friend telling me about a cop who bought a truck after being involved in a case where they found a bunch of stolen money. At this point, it's good to pause and add the superlative importance of our cognitive biases to this mix, which can color our perception in unexpected ways. Here is a wiki link about them Also, semantic association can occur based on similarity. Our brain tends to lump together anything (information, concepts, objects, people, whatever) that bears some resemblance.

  • Another type of connection between nodes occurs through causality: Suppose a person, trying to fix an appliance by themselves, ends up damaging it even more. Now, their brain has created a new type of association between the two terms, conditioning them in the future: fixing appliances by oneself = a bad idea.

  • Our brain also likes to group things that are alike in some way. And then there's this whole causality thing – if someone tries fixing a gadget themselves and ends up making it worse, their brain links 'fixing gadgets on my own' to 'bad idea' for the future.

But wait, there's more! Associative Activation can also happen because of external influence, like the captivating (but risky) "Priming," which we'll get into later.

Without these semantic networks, we'd be totally lost! Our brains work this way to keep our thinking speedy and effective, with a super agile memory, saving energy, processing things in parallel, saving time, being crazy creative, and learning complex stuff by connecting distant but well-known concepts in the network.

But here's where it gets tricky. Semantic networks influence how we understand, remember, and retrieve information, something that plays a crucial role in these times of algorithms and artificial intelligence, not to mention the constant bombardment we are exposed to on social media and other platforms.

Today, more than ever, behavioral sciences take on an unprecedented relevance. Understanding how we think and process reality helps us create behavioral interventions capable of promoting positive changes, aiding the adoption of healthy habits, as well as reducing or nullifying harmful habits.

Behavioral design is very powerful and will be of great benefit in the right hands. But the reality is that we are surrounded by examples of thought manipulation whose ends are not always honorable.

Now, let's dive into "Priming." One form of Associative Activation that never ceases to amaze me (and at the same time worry me) is the phenomenon known as Priming, controversial also because of how challenging it has been for academia to demonstrate it convincingly in recent years.

This concept refers to the brain's ability to fill in the "empty space" of a mental pattern in different ways, depending on how it has been previously influenced.

Here, Daniel Kahneman uses a very clear example in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow: "...if you have recently seen or heard the word EAT, you are temporarily more likely to complete the word fragment SO_P as SOUP than as SOAP. The opposite would happen, of course, if you had just seen WASH… EAT primes the idea of SOUP, and… WASH primes SOAP..."

Priming shows us how easy (and therefore dangerous) it is to be exposed to any kind of info without being aware of how we'll process it and what effect it might have on us.

We need to be aware of how we think about what we think. To our Associative Activation process, we must add how our cognitive biases could lead us to pay more attention to information from certain sources and reject exposures from others with opposing cognitive associations or that somehow seem distant, shocking, or simply take us out of our comfort zone.

Without realizing it, we fall into these mental autopilot patterns, where we filter our reality and only accept info and "truths" that match our existing semantic networks, shutting ourselves off from others and making it tough to connect with those who think differently.

So, what can we do about it? Honestly, there's not a ton we can do to avoid it, but there are some habits we can build into our daily lives to be more aware of it and lessen its impact:

1 - Flex your critical thinking muscles: Even though it sounds like common sense, we often don't notice how automatic our thinking is and how quick we are to accept info as gospel. Questioning what you hear is a good thing.

2 - Fact-check your sources: In line with the above, get used to verifying the authenticity of information sources before accepting or closing a topic. Disinformation campaigns often use priming techniques to manipulate perception.

3 - Keep an eye on your cognitive biases: Get to know your cognitive biases – being aware of them is a big help. Check not just what's coming from outside but also your automatic responses.

4 - Mix up your info sources: It's not easy, but consuming info from different sources, even if they don't align with your views, can help counteract the priming effect by giving you different angles and a more rounded understanding.

5 - Reflect on your thinking: Ask yourself, 'Why do I believe what I believe?' Just doing that can kick off some interesting reflections.

6 - Step out of your bubble: Try to understand and empathize with others. It can help avoid negative associative triggers based on surface-level similarities.


While Priming can be a game-changer – studies show that people exposed to generous acts are more likely to do good stuff – it's super important to be alert to any attempts at triggering trends or negative Associative Activation.

It's not that simple, but we've got to make an effort to be more in the moment and less automatic – whether we're picking an outfit, making a spontaneous purchase, voting for a political candidate, or sizing up someone we just met.

If you're curious about this stuff and want to dive deeper into Behavioral Design for the benefit of your users, follow us on social media and check out our blog.

Need a hand with your project? - Let's chat! Have an awesome day! 👋 - Marce.

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