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Association principle


Principles > Association principle

Principle | How it works | So what?


I mentally connect things together, and then automatically follow the links I have made.

How it works

The connected brain

One of the fundamental ways in which our minds work is to link things together. If I say 'elephant' your mind will immediately start thinking 'what's that like?', charging off on a butterfly series of associations, for example leaping to 'circus', 'clown', 'fool', 'king' and so on.

If, however, I can control how you associate, I can lead you in any direction I choose. The trick of this is to follow the natural tendencies of the mind, leading you along the rutted paths that already groove your thinking.

Association is, to some extent at least, the opposite of the contrast principle (or perhaps a contrast is an automatic association). Instead of highlighting something by showing you something else which is different, it is about seducing you through things which are similar, or related in some way.

Emotional association

Emotions are very often associated with events, and the strength of the emotion is what makes that even significant in our memories. Emotional memories come to mind more easily and so continue to occupy our attention.

Phobias happen this way. I see a spider as a child, I am terrified. Now, whenever I even hear the word 'spider', I feel fear. This association of emotion with words and events is accentuated if others feel emotion at the same time. If my mother was also scared of the spider (or maybe was the first to feel fear), then the phobia will only be made stronger.

Prior thought

If we have recently been thinking about something, then that thought, or even related items will come to mind more quickly. This is the power of priming, where we a simple seed of an idea or thought can flower and 'mysteriously' come to mind later, basing later thoughts.

Cognitions fade and a thought or memory that happened a long time ago may also affect current thinking but will be less effective than recent thoughts unless it is emotionally significant or has been reviewed recently (so making it a recent thought).

There are many ways we make errors in decision-making and association with what has recently or more distantly been considered is a fundamental force.


Association provides handy short-cuts for thinking. Brands take advantage of this. See Coca Cola -- think 'refreshing world drink'. Hmm.

A connected society

As a species, we have found it advantageous to live in groups where we can share the tasks of living. However, this comes at a price: to be accepted, we have to obey the social rules. It also leads to non-stop competition within the pecking order as we seek a mate, esteem and social power.

Even when we stand next to someone we do not know, we feel connected in some way. If they are famous or powerful,  we feel a reflected glory. If they are socially undesirable, we feel tainted and will ignore them or move away.


In the Anchoring and Adjustment Heuristic, any prior information provides a tethering anchor point from which we do not stray to far. This is because we have associated the choice with the first possibility we find.  Negotiators use this when they use methods such as the highball or the lowball tactics.


Conditioning is based on the principle of association, where associating a natural, (unconditioned) stimulus with an artificial (conditioned) stimulus can lead to the artificial stimulus being just as effective as the natural stimulus in creating the same response.


Assumption also works on yourself. If you act as if you are powerful, you will feel more powerful. If you act as if you are happy, then you will actually get happier.

So what?

So connect things. Connect people with their needs and wants. Connect what you want with what they want. Connect what is already accepted with what you want to be accepted. 

You can connect in time, starting with things with which they cannot disagree, and following immediately with things of which you want to persuade them.

One of the most powerful things you can do is to connect personally -- from them to you. They will then follow you. You can get them to connect visually, for example making yourself look powerful and attractive. You can connect emotionally, getting them into a buying frame of mind before presenting what you have to sell.

See also

Truth by Association, Elaboration Likelihood Model, Needs, Emotions, Conditioning

Theories about meaning, Theories about memory, Theories about decision errors, Theories about forecasting


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