1/30/12 - you are influenced in ways you don't realize

In today's excerpt - our memory works in such a way that things that happen to us in one moment influence our behavior after that in ways we don't realize. It is a process psychologists refer to as priming, and it suggests, for example, that adopting positive language and mannerisms can in fact make us more positive:

"If you have recently seen or heard the word EAT, you are tempo­rarily more likely to complete the word fragment SO_P as SOUP than as SOAP. The opposite would happen, of course, if you had just seen WASH. We call this a priming effect and say that the idea of EAT primes the idea of SOUP, and that WASH primes SOAP.

"Priming effects take many forms. If the idea of EAT is currently on your mind (whether or not you are conscious of it), you will be quicker than usual to recognize the word SOUP when it is spoken in a whisper or pre­sented in a blurry font. And of course you are primed not only for the idea of soup but also for a multitude of food-related ideas, including fork, hungry, fat, diet, and cookie. ... Like ripples on a pond, activation spreads through a small part of the vast net­work of associated ideas. The mapping of these ripples is now one of the most exciting pursuits in psychological research.

"Another major advance in our understanding of memory was the dis­covery that priming is not restricted to concepts and words. You cannot know this from conscious experience, of course, but you must accept the alien idea that your actions and your emotions can be primed by events of which you are not even aware. In an experiment that became an instant classic, the psychologist John Bargh and his collaborators asked students at New York University—most aged eighteen to twenty-two—to assemble four-word sentences from a set of five words (for example, 'finds he it yel­low instantly'). For one group of students, half the scrambled sentences contained words associated with the elderly, such as Florida, forgetful, bald, gray, or wrinkle. When they had completed that task, the young partici­pants were sent out to do another experiment in an office down the hall. That short walk was what the experiment was about. The researchers unob­trusively measured the time it took people to get from one end of the cor­ridor to the other. As Bargh had predicted, the young people who had fashioned a sentence from words with an elderly theme walked down the hallway significantly more slowly than the others.

"The 'Florida effect' involves two stages of priming. First, the set of words primes thoughts of old age, though the word old is never mentioned; second, these thoughts prime a behavior, walking slowly, which is associ­ated with old age. All this happens without any awareness. When they were questioned afterward, none of the students reported noticing that the words had had a common theme, and they all insisted that nothing they did after the first experiment could have been influenced by the words they had encountered. The idea of old age had not come to their conscious aware­ness, but their actions had changed nevertheless. This remarkable priming phenomenon—the influencing of an action by the idea—is known as the ideomotor effect. ... 

"The ideomotor link also works in reverse. A study conducted in a German university was the mirror image of the early experiment that Bargh and his colleagues had carried out in New York. Students were asked to walk around a room for 5 minutes at a rate of 30 steps per minute, which was about one-third their normal pace. After this brief experience, the par­ticipants were much quicker to recognize words related to old age, such as forgetful, old, and lonely....

"Reciprocal links are common in the associative network. For example, being amused tends to make you smile, and smiling tends to make you feel amused. Go ahead and take a pencil, and hold it between your teeth for a few seconds with the eraser pointing to your right and the point to your left. Now hold the pencil so the point is aimed straight in front of you, by purs­ing your lips around the eraser end. You were probably unaware that one of these actions forced your face into a frown and the other into a smile. Col­lege students were asked to rate the humor of cartoons from Gary Larsons The Far Side while holding a pencil in their mouth. Those who were 'smil­ing' (without any awareness of doing so) found the cartoons funnier than did those who were 'frowning.' In another experiment, people whose face was shaped into a frown (by squeezing their eyebrows together) reported an enhanced emotional response to upsetting pictures—starving children, people arguing, maimed accident victims."

author: Daniel Kahneman
title: Thinking, Fast and Slow
publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
date: Copyright 2011 by Daniel Kahneman
pages: 52-54

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