Last time, I posed the somewhat odd question as to how we might use  the natural tendencies of the human brain, specifically our evolutionary hardwired aspect of making associations, to foster more peace and compassion among humans.  We then looked at how we just naturally make associations as a tool in aiding our memories.  Now we consider why our evolutionary past favored this skill as well as how such links can change our behavior, often without being aware.

Think back to our distant past when our ancestors foraged.  If eating a certain berry or fruit made one sick or killed their relative, then it was to their advantage to link those memories. See the fruit, remember the illness or death, steer clear of the fruit. We see spiders or snakes and we want to stay away from them as some are deadly. Our ancestors made that association the hard way and it’s been passed down for generations and generations.

They made associations as to signs in our environment that were potentially threatening and avoided them out of fear of harm, whether real or not, and this “playing it safe” led to living longer.  They made similar links as to environmental cues as to where to find food and shelter and this skill led to a longer life as well.  Those who could make the most accurate and useful mental associations were more likely to survive and produce offspring.

The point here is this – something about our physical nature is both hardwired with certain associations in our memories so that we enter our life here with those links already made for us and we are hardwired to create new associations during this lifetime. This ability has served us in the past in our individual evolution. Can this natural tendency be tapped to further the next steps on our evolutionary journey?

Memory experts have already shown us how to use this natural ability we all have. Psychologists have studied this tendency and have shown that creating mental triggers can create behavioral changes. In the recent book Contagious Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger, he summarizes the scientific evidence as to the possible causes for the creation of social trends and why certain social media actions go viral. He sees six basic aspects as to why some idea “catches on” and changes our collective behavior. One of those is this concept of mental associations or “triggers”. (By the way, I highly recommend the book.)

Berger describes a scientific study with college students where they were being paid to keep journals of what they ate for a number of weeks. In the middle of the study, they were asked to participate in what was presented as a separate study. Those who agreed were divided into two groups. Each group was presented with a different potential marketing slogan being considered to encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables. One slogan was” live the healthy way, eat five fruits and veggies a day” while the other was “each and every dining hall tray needs five fruits and veggies a day”. The first phrase ranked higher in “preference”.

However, as the students continued with their participation in the first study where they were keeping the journals, it was found that those who were asked to rank the slogan which linked dining hall trays to fruits and vegetables changed their behavior. They increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables both over what they had been eating previously. (The other group who saw the other slogan did not change their behavior.) The linkage in the students’ minds of dining hall trays to fruits and vegetables led to a behavioral change even without their conscious participation.

There are lots of scientific studies that show how such associations can change our actions. Marketers use this information all the time to sell us more stuff. This is a critical concept behind the idea of “branding”. The repeated association of company logos and slogans in commercials was designed to create within our memories a linkage between them and the overall idea of the companies’ product or service.

When you see the Golden Arches or hear the phrase “I’m loving it”, you most likely conjure up a picture of the McDonald’s dining experience. Their advertisements also try to create a link within you to the positive aspects of that experience (quick, inexpensive, tasty, clean environment, etc.) even if you don’t really care for McDonalds.  After repeated linkages in your mind via commercials, every time afterwards you see their logo or hear their slogan, it’s like that string on your finger or sticky note on the door – it’s a shorthand to a bigger memory. Your evolutionary past is at play in every branding or triggering moment.

So how can we consciously use this tendency for something better than selling us stuff?  Specifically can we use the skill to bring us together?  We get to that next time.

Mark Gilbert


Check out all of Mark Gilbert’s books—available at Amazon. Click here to visit his Author Page. This includes his recent one Our Spiritual Rights and Responsibilities. In this book, he offers what he suggests are the 5 basic rights we all possess by virtue of our being these spiritual beings on planet Earth — and our 2 responsibilities we all hold in relation to one another! Check it out!