Unconscious Influences On Our Behavior

by Stephen Mills on January 28, 2011

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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January 29, 2011 at 2:56 am

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Bradley Gauthier January 28, 2011 at 3:09 pm

This is great Stephen. I went to college for psychology and I was always intrigued by the priming concept. We once did an experiment along those lines and the positive results forever changed the way I viewed motivation and success.

Thanks for the post!
Bradley Gauthier´s last blog post ..Who’s Behind the Brand 15 Examples of Companies Rocking Social Media


Stephen Mills February 3, 2011 at 7:19 pm

Hello Bradley, thanks for the comment. I’ve been interested in psychology since I was a kid, but I studied computer science in college.


Jerry December 18, 2011 at 3:43 pm

you should have someone read your work before you post it online… not very well written in my opinion and you didn’t really give any new information or perform any studies of your own.


Stephen Mills December 18, 2011 at 4:46 pm


“you didn’t really give any new information or perform any studies of your own”

Thanks for the laugh. Perhaps you should think about your comments before you post them online. Rather ridiculous in my opinion.


Henway January 28, 2011 at 10:25 pm

There’s really not much I can do about it except turn off the TV, not listen to any advertisements, and not even look at people… even the glance of a beautiful woman can make my entire day go off-stray if you know what I mean =)
Henway´s last blog post ..VitaminShoppe Reviews


Stephen Mills February 3, 2011 at 7:21 pm

Hi Henway, I can agree with turning off the TV and ads, but I think looking at people is still a good idea 🙂


Caroline January 29, 2011 at 3:29 am

Very interesting article thank you, though somewhat frightening!
One query I have, though, relates to the relationship between an individual’s susceptibility to such external influences and their intelligence. Would it not be likely that people of higher intelligence – or even higher levels of discernment, thoughtfulness or whatever – would be less likely to be controlled by such influences than people with lower intellectual abilities? While it’s always dangerous to generalise, I imagine that this could be a pertinent factor.
Thanks for your great articles,


Stephen Mills February 3, 2011 at 7:25 pm

Hi Caroline I would think but I really don’t know that anyone who is aware of what influences them is less likely to be influenced. But in any case these kind of influences can be initiated by so many triggers that we are undoubtedly all influenced much more than we imagine.


Darko January 29, 2011 at 10:06 am

The question is: Are those effects (like walking slowly with the example of the old people) temporary or permanent? I think they are temporary. Do they last longer if we’re continuously exposed to them? Seems nothing of this is permanent so this gives one positive message…if we’re exposed to these negative things, we can always change our environment and surround ourselves with positive things and we will change some parts of ourselves.


Stephen Mills February 3, 2011 at 7:27 pm

Hi Darko, fortunately they are temporary. The problem is we are mostly unaware of what is actually influencing us at any moment.


John D. Buerger, CFP® January 29, 2011 at 2:32 pm

If you think THAT is scary, read through Robert Cialdini’s “Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion.” It demonstrates how priming, anchoring and other psychological tricks are used every day by marketers and others who want to sway your decisions in their favor. And all these tricks work … many even when we KNOW they are being used.
John D. Buerger, CFP®´s last blog post ..Living An Inspiring Life


Stephen Mills February 3, 2011 at 7:31 pm

Hi John, I actually have that book on my shelf but I have never read it. I guess I need to check it out. Thanks for the tip.


WindSunMoon January 30, 2011 at 12:55 pm

Your post would be much more compelling with citations to the sources for these claims.


Stephen Mills January 31, 2011 at 7:53 am

WindSunMoon, this is a BLOG article, it is not a scientific submission to a peer-reviewed journal. If you don’t believe me simply do a Google search and you can find them. If you don’t believe me go somewhere else, I don’t care. I get tired of answering why I don’t write to scientific standards on a FREAKING BLOG.


WindSunMoon February 2, 2011 at 4:49 pm

Stephen – I really enjoyed your post and and was so tempted to send it on to friends, but without sources I don’t — that’s why I was moved to make my very first comment on a blog ever — because it was so good. Of course it’s your blog, and you can write whatever you want. Obviously I’m not the first to have mentioned this, and I apologize for stepping on a sore spot — I thought I was being helpful. I won’t bother you again.


Stephen Mills February 2, 2011 at 9:15 pm

WindSunMoon, if I had known you liked it I probably wouldn’t have overreacted to your suggestion. Yes, it is a sore spot and I’ve had some ridiculous conversations on it. Obviously I don’t want to rehash those again.


Tom January 31, 2011 at 11:07 am

Good stuff, Stephen! Instead of avoiding the negative, we have more power to plant the positive. If reading books on making money will improve my money making performance then I should be reading more books on making money (if that’s what I want). It also warrants some personal experimentation with what’s being piped through the headphones, asleep or awake.

…and yes, we should see those citations! (just kidding)
Tom´s last blog post ..Back to School Mondays- Lakehead Thunderwolves


Stephen Mills February 3, 2011 at 7:36 pm

Hi Tom, I think replacing the negative by “planting the positive” is a fine idea. If we are going to be influenced, we should control those influences to whatever degree we can. The part that concerns me is what exactly is influencing me and to what degree? What you don’t know can hurt you.


Nea | Self Improvement Saga February 2, 2011 at 8:36 pm

This is so very interesting. Something I’ve noticed is that I drive faster and take more traffic “risks” when listening to my daughter’s hip-hop or hard rock music on the radio. When I’m listening to more mellow music, I drive slower and more carefully. I’ve noticed several other examples of the unconscious influences on my behavior, but this stands out to me. As much as I’d love to believe that I’m totally in control of my actions and immune to outside influences, it’s clearly not true. It’s definitely important for us to be more aware and deliberate when it comes to our surroundings.
Nea | Self Improvement Saga´s last blog post ..Top 3 Ways to Maintain a Meaningful Relationship


Stephen Mills February 3, 2011 at 7:34 pm

Hi Nea, thanks for the comment. It’s great that you are actually noticing those things that are influencing you. And yes I’d love to believe that I’m in control too 🙁


Arlyn M. Alforque May 7, 2012 at 10:10 pm

wow!..cool comment…


Jonathan - Advanced Life Skills February 2, 2011 at 9:57 pm

Stephen, I love it when you write about this stuff. The more aware we are of what is influencing us the greater our ability to filter those influences. The whole topic shows how amazingly vast and diverse our perceptual senses are. Truly remarkable.
Jonathan – Advanced Life Skills´s last blog post ..Negative Talk is like a Verbal Scorpion


Stephen Mills February 3, 2011 at 7:37 pm

Hello Jonathan and thanks. These are some of my favorite articles too 🙂


farouk February 4, 2011 at 2:47 am

that article is amazing and full of new information, thanks so much for taking the time to write it 🙂


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Well done for all your hard work in providing this high quality blog.Thanks for this informative post.
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Lili May 9, 2011 at 11:41 pm

It’s wonderful to read an article that is accurate and non bias! I couldn’t have written a better observation!


Gump July 10, 2011 at 7:38 pm

A good many vaallubes you’ve given me.


qjohve July 13, 2011 at 4:15 am
最新电视剧 May 18, 2011 at 4:18 am

Hello Jonathan and thanks.


Chris September 11, 2011 at 12:50 pm

Habit is an unconscious impulse of sorts. We don’t give much thought to tying our shoes or driving the same route home time and again because we’ve done both many, many, many times. The pattern in programmed into our minds and we access it without even thinking about it. The solution for me is to try and ‘choose’ my programming by choosing what my habits will be. That way the programming will work in my favor instead of directing me somewhere I don’t want to go.
Chris´s last blog post ..Funkytown


Dekorasyon October 3, 2011 at 1:22 pm

thanks cool article yeahh


Y8 October 24, 2011 at 7:42 pm

Don’t even know what to say on this topic. So much ideas are mixed in my head after reading it. Very problematic article I think


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Lea November 28, 2011 at 3:34 pm

Interesting points. I definitely see the correlation.


Y8 December 6, 2011 at 11:23 am

The problem is we are mostly unaware of what is actually influencing us at any moment.


Tom H February 29, 2012 at 3:34 pm

Great article. It reminds me of the fact that so much of our nature is erally “second nature”. When we learn something over and over it becomes automatic. Also some scientists think humans have evooved to be more gullible than other animals, as a means of helping us hang together in groups. From your article it seesms as if we begin to be influenced by our peers and environment as soon as wse encounter them. I wonder if other animals experience anything approaching the kind of things you describe.


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Arlyn M. Alforque May 7, 2012 at 10:08 pm

..thank you so much..you help me….God bless


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