Nonconscious priming, the art of implanting messages or ideas in a person’s mind without them realising, can have subtle and profound affects on behaviour. For example, secretly prime your subject with concepts related to old age (called conceptual priming), and you’ll find they tend to walk slower when leaving the lab. One of the most interesting is the effect you can have on a person’s honesty. It’s been previously shown, for example, that if you subtly expose religious people to religious terms, then subsequently they’ll be more honest in tests (See also this previous post).
In a study out this month in International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, Brandon Randolph Seng has reported that, using subliminal priming, the same thing happens with the non-religious. What does this mean?
The research was conducted in the US, and so the participants (all students) are likely to have heavily exposed to religious concepts when growing up. Prehaps, as a result, even the non- and less-religious still link religious terminology with pro-social concepts. Perhaps what this shows is that the prosocial effects of religious priming that have previously been shown in religious people do not depend on their religiosity.
Alternatively, because Seng used the subject’s self-reported (or explicit) religiosity rather than their intrinsic, non-conscious religiosity, it may be that the subjects who reported being non-religious may have had rather stronger subconscious religious beliefs than they consciously owned up to. Only further research will tell.
But the take home message is this, being exposed to religious imagery might change the way you behave without you realising it – even if you consider yourself to be an atheist!
Ref: Randolph-Seng B, Nielsen ME. Honesty: One Effect of Primed Religious Representations. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion. 2007;17, No. 4:303-315. Text available online.