Priming the Mind

In a previous post from Daylight Atheism titled “On Presuppositions” (all the way back in February 2006!), I wrote about how subconscious biases and prejudices, instilled in us by culture and surroundings, can exert a disturbingly measurable effect on our behavior. However, there is more to this story that deserves to be told. In the previous post, I wrote about persistent biases, those that are apparently supported and reinforced frequently enough over long enough periods of time to become lasting aspects of our mental state and behavior. But, the evidence shows, even exposure to brief snippets of information can measurably affect the way we act, at least for a short time.

Turning again to Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink:

In front of you is a sheet of paper with a list of five-word sets. I want you to make a grammatical four-word sentence as quickly as possible out of each set. It’s called a scrambled-sentence test. Ready?

  1. him was worried she always
  2. are from Florida oranges temperature
  3. ball the throw toss silently
  4. shoes give replace old the
  5. he observes occasionally people watches
  6. be will sweat lonely they
  7. sky the seamless gray is
  8. should not withdraw forgetful we
  9. us bingo sing play let
  10. sunlight makes temperature wrinkle raisins

That seemed straightforward, right? Actually it wasn’t. After you finished that test – believe it or not – you would have walked out of my office and back down the hall more slowly than you walked in. With that test, I affected the way you behaved. How? Well, look back at the list. Scattered throughout it are certain words, such as “worried,” “Florida,” “old,” “lonely,” “gray,” “bingo,” and “wrinkle.” You thought that I was just making you take a language test. But, in fact, what I was also doing was making the big computer in your brain – your adaptive unconscious – think about the state of being old. It didn’t inform the rest of your brain about its sudden obsession. But it took all this talk of old age so seriously that by the time you finished and walked down the corridor, you acted old. You walked slowly. (p.53)

Studies like this are the work of a New York University psychologist named John Bargh, whose work Gladwell enumerates upon. In another variation of this test, the “priming” words were one of two sets: either words like “aggressive”, “rude”, “disturb” and “infringe”, or words like “respect”, “considerate”, “patiently” and “courteous”. After the sentence-completion exercise, participants were asked to walk down the hall to another office to get their next assignment. However, a confederate in the experiment was blocking the doorway, posing as a confused student talking to the teacher. The question was whether the people primed with “rude” words would interrupt more quickly than the people primed with “polite” words, and they did – by a huge margin. The “rude” group interrupted after five minutes, on average. However, the overwhelming majority – 82% – of the “polite” group never interrupted at all, waiting the full ten minutes Bargh had arranged in advance for the phony conversation to last.

The priming phenomenon has been studied and rediscovered numerous times, in a variety of different contexts. In a New York Times article from last November, “Just Thinking About Money Can Turn the Mind Stingy“, a study found that another scrambled-sentence test, this one containing words such as “money” and “salary”, temporarily made participants less willing to ask for help from others and more stingy in giving it. (The article errs, however, in claiming that there is no precedent for this work.) It even caused participants to unconsciously place more physical distance between themselves and others – a small-scale demonstration of what I have previously said about the isolating effect of wealth.

Another aspect of priming, dubbed the “Lady Macbeth effect“: asking subjects to recall an unethical act makes them more likely to fill in letter-completion tests to create words that suggest cleanliness:

In one set of tests, the researchers asked participants to recall an ethical or unethical act, and then asked them to fill in the missing letters in a series of incomplete words, like W_ _H and SH_ _ER. Those subjects who had recalled unethical acts mostly returned WASH and SHOWER, while the others returned a variety of words, like WISH and SHAKER.

And priming subjects with the feeling of being watched, even by eyes that they obviously know are not real, causes them to behave more honestly:

During the weeks when the eyes poster stared down at the coffee station, coffee and tea drinkers contributed 2.76 times as much money as in the weeks when flowers graced the wall.

…Roberts says he was stunned: “We kind of thought there might be a subtle effect. We weren’t expecting such a large impact.”

Indeed, this is a theme that recurs repeatedly in priming experiments. While scientists frequently expect the effect to be small, barely measurable, they are routinely shocked by how large and obvious it is. It should be stressed, however, that in all these studies, none of the subjects could offer conscious rationales for their altered behavior when asked to do so. In most cases, they were not even aware that their behavior had been altered.

But the priming effect does not just affect our behavior. It can also, incredibly, have significant effects on our actual performance. In another study cited by Gladwell, two groups of students were asked to answer forty-two questions from the game Trivial Pursuit. But first, one group was first asked to sit and think about professors, the other to think about soccer hooligans. And the difference was dramatic: an average of 55.6% of the questions were answered correctly by the first group, while only 42.6% were answered correctly by the second.

How can these results be explained? Can priming somehow temporarily infuse the brain with an expanded store of facts? Obviously not. Instead, what seems to be happening is that encouraging people to “think smart” briefly increases mental qualities like their ability to focus, their sense of recall, and their ability to quickly and correctly integrate diverse pieces of information. In other words, priming does not make us more intelligent, but it does briefly make us better at using the intelligence we already have.

But disturbingly, this effect can occur in the opposite direction as well. Most uncomfortably of all, it seems that the mere mention of race can evoke some of history’s most ugly and pernicious stereotypes. Gladwell explains:

The psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson created an even more extreme version of this test, using black college students and twenty questions taken from the Graduate Record Examination, the standardized test used for entry into graduate school. When the students were asked to identify their race on a pretest questionnaire, that simple act was sufficient to prime them with all the negative stereotypes associated with African Americans and academic achievement – and the number of items they got right was cut in half (p.56).

Another example, as reported in this article:

Margaret Shih, a Taiwanese-American who is a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, wholeheartedly agrees that positive stereotypes often have a darker flip side. As a Harvard University graduate student, she helped administer a mathematics test to Asian-American women. During the preparations, some were subtly reminded that they were Asian, others that they were women. Nothing was said about race or gender to a third, control group. Those branded as Asians fulfilled the positive stereotype that Asians are whizzes at math. They did much better on the test than the control group. Those whose gender was emphasized met a negative stereotype – that women do poorly at math.

In spite of all that our society has done to eradicate these shameful stereotypes, it is very disturbing to see how much power they apparently retain. Even though women and minorities are no less intelligent, the internalized presence of stereotypes at even a subconscious level can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. What can a person concerned with equality and tolerance do to defeat this harmful effect?

Happily, there is an answer to this question. We are not helpless in the face of external influences on our behavior; although we are not perfectly rational agents, we are rational enough to control the irrational excesses of our actions. Just as I wrote in the previous post on presuppositions, the way we overcome these influences is to recognize their influence on us and consciously resist or compensate for them. The only kind of influence that truly makes us less free is the one that we are not aware of.

The priming effect is a perfect example. Like many illusions from fantasy and mythology, once it is perceived and recognized for what it is, it ceases to exist. Specifically, if we are aware of the phenomenon of mental priming and know that it is being used on us, the effect disappears. As Gladwell writes, “Once you become conscious of being primed… the priming doesn’t work” (p.54).

This, then, is how we battle negative stereotypes and other undesirable manifestations of the priming effect: by consciously recognizing them and rejecting them, or better yet, counteracting them with positive evidence to the contrary. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the effect, we cannot consciously prime ourselves to do better at our tasks. But we can end the effect entirely and succeed based on our true skills and ability, and surely this is at least a second-best outcome.

The priming effect undoubtedly explains a great deal of the persuasive power of advertising. Though it would seem, rationally, that a fact-free thirty-second snippet offering no real reasons to prefer a product to its competitors could not possibly affect one’s behavior – and at a rational level, it very probably does not – it may well be that exposure to advertising can make the viewer more likely to purchase that product if they should come across an opportunity to do so soon afterward. It is ironic that people fear subliminal advertising (the effectiveness of which has never been reliably demonstrated), when the evidence suggests that ordinary, consciously perceived advertising is more than enough to subconsciously affect behavior in the way that subliminal ads have long been feared to do. But, again, this fearsome manipulative power can only work on people who are passive and unaware.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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