How You Are Being Programmed Without Knowing It

If they fire together, they wire together.

Donald Hebb

This famous theory was articulated in the 1940’s by neuroscientist Donald Hebb. He described in his book The Organization of Behavior, how, when various neurons in our brain “fire” together, they “wire” together.

Easier said, this means that when you see your neighbor driving a new blue Volkswagen, the neurons in your brain remembering your neighbor will fire up, just like where the image of the car is represented. From that moment on, you will associate this blue Volkswagen with your neighbor.

Another example of this mechanism is when you smell a particular type of pie, that reminds you of your grandmother. Also, when you are playing soccer, and the ball crosses the white line on the side, you know you have to throw it in again. In both of the aforementioned situations there was a moment, where you learned that the ball crossing the white line means something, and that the smell of pie usually occurs at your grandmother’s. At these moments there were (at least) two neurons firing togetherand therefore wiring together.

However, the stimulation of the two variables needs to be repeated, for it to stick long term. Therefore, when two neurons fire together more often, they form a stronger association.

Now imagine this, you leave your house in the morning, headphones on and you are listening to the latest Coldplay album. You walk to the bus stop, where upon arrival you see a poster sliding by. You see a beautiful woman, looking happy, using a L’Oreal product, followed by a SUV in mountainous terrain.

SUV x mountainous terrain = sense of adventure

According to “if they fire together, they wire together”, in this story there are either new connections being made, or old ones being strengthened. Important to realize is, that it is not necessary to be consciously present for this mechanism to work. The biggest part of our consciousness, is subconscious. This means that if you do not try be aware of it, you will barely notice it.

Division of our mind

Nevertheless, when the L’Oreal commercial flashes by there is a connection being made between women, probably “prettiness”, and L’Oreal. Just like the Ford SUV, and the mountainous terrain provoke a feeling of adventure. From that moment on you will be more likely to associate these two things. This all depends however, on who you are. Man are more likely to be impressed by the Ford advertising, where women are more likely to be affected by the L’Oreal poster. On top of this all, the fact that you were listening to Coldplay at the time, might make it a trigger to think of these commercials or the feelings they provoked.

None of these associations are being formed because you were asking for it. Rather, they are a consequence of ingenuous marketing targeting your subconscious. This is all based on the idea that emotions drive behavior.

The idea of advertising is to provoke positive emotions in your subconscious.

Even though, marketing companies try to increase the likelihood you will buy their product, a lot of similar mechanisms are going on without their interference.

When we grow up for example, certain behavior is being encouraged, where other is being discouraged. Hitting your little brother will usually not be accepted, but brushing your teeth will. These cues from your parents provoke emotions. Hopefully, as a consequence you will associate positive emotions with brushing your teeth to feel the contrary when you hit your little brother.

At this age, an argument based on the long term consequences of not brushing your teeth will have little effect. Even though, in adulthood we might understand this better, still it is far from the deciding factor in our behavior.

As things go, most of these mechanisms are at work without our attention. Over the years you grew up, your parents might have only given you affection when you perform well in school, or your friends only thought you cool when you were hateful against the history teacher. Where nowadays, your boss only approves of you, when you care more about results than the happiness of your colleagues.

However, do you agree with this? Do you feel these emotions should be triggered in these situations? Is what you believe really what you value, or is it only because some ancient program is triggering “positive” emotions that otherwise have no real meaning. Once you realize this though, you have the opportunity to change.