One of the most fascinating, and to me unnerving, results to come out of a lot of recent psychological research is just how much of our behavior is subject to unconscious influence. I for one and I think most people like to believe we are acting deliberately when in fact we often are not. This article will focus on a phenomenon referred to in research as priming.
Consider the following sometimes very large effects:
- Subjects exposed to words about elderly people walked more slowly and amazingly had worse recall (!) of the experiment than the control subjects.
- Subject exposed to words related to rudeness were much more likely to interrupt a discussion than those exposed to words related to politeness.
- Subjects primed with Albert Einstein performed better on trivia tests than those primed with Claudia Schiffer, but performed worse on general knowledge tests. This is known as the contrast effect.
- People exposed to stories about moral indiscretion are twice as likely to choose cleaning products as gifts as those exposed to stories of moral virtue. Its seems they feel the need to “clean up”.
- Subjects holding a cold drink rated others’ personalities much colder than subjects holding a warm drink.
- Students exposed to a faint odor of a cleaning product are 3 times more likely to clean up after eating a snack than those not exposed.
- African American students primed with racial stereotypes will perform worse on intellectual tests than those primed with examples of black achievement.
- Subjects given a word puzzle containing words like “strive”, “succeed”, “achieve”, etc., are more than twice as likely to continue working on other puzzles past the time they are instructed to stop.
- Reading stories about people seeking sex will make you much more likely to help attractive people.
- Reading stories about money making will actually improve your performance on tasks where you can earn money.
- People invested much more conservatively in a room with a briefcase than in a room with a backpack.
- You will eat a lot more week old crappy tasting popcorn in a big container than you will eat fresh popcorn from a smaller container, even though both of them are too large for you to finish.
- People primed with arbitrary numbers will anchor on that number when making subsequent decisions. For example being primed with a low number will cause subjects to be willing to pay much less for an item than those primed with higher numbers.
- People ate 69% more jelly beans when all the colors were mixed together than when they were separated by colors. Along the same lines, presenting 10 colors of M&Ms instead of 7, increased consumption 43%.
All of these effects are unconscious and subjects will often deny they’ve been influenced when told about them. They will come up with ad hoc rationalizations rather than admit they have been so mindlessly influenced.
This small sample show wide ranging and hard-to-believe effects. Thinking about old people causes my memory to be worse?! See a someone behaving rudely will make me more likely to be rude? If I meet someone new and they are holding a cold drink I’m doomed?
Whether we admit it or not we are heavily influenced by our environment and we are mostly ignorant of these influences. The obvious conclusion is that the more you can control your environment the more control you will have over these influences. You can’t just assume you are in control and independent of such influences.
Another important point to make in this regard is that the priming trigger may be even more hidden than you imagine. As an example, I could decide not to watch TV news because I don’t want to be influenced by all the negativity and trumped up scare stories. However, what if the TV news is on but my attention is elsewhere and I’m not paying any attention to it? What if I’m completely oblivious to the fact it is even turned on?
Our conscious attention capacity is very limited and what we can hold in working memory is very small compared to the amount of data entering our brains through our senses. Research has proven that are brains are taking in information that we are consciously unaware of. That means we are likely being influenced by the TV news that is on even when we are not watching or paying attention. Our unconscious mind is still hearing it.
We are not simply automatons programmed by our environments, but neither are we the independent decision makers we like to believe. For me, that’s a tough pill to swallow, but I accept the evidence wherever it may lead.
I find this kind of research fascinating from a purely intellectual standpoint. From an emotional standpoint, I found it quite disturbing. I think the takeaway is that the people we hang around with and the environments we expose ourselves to have a much more significant influence upon our behavior than some of us we would hope. We can’t help that; it’s simply the way we are made. Now what are you going to do about it?
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