Alert - your brain leaves you open to manipulation

November 23, 2016

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Mind control is less common than TV would have you believe, but it can happen. Problem is, the kinds of shortcuts our brain uses to speed things up leaves up open to manipulation. The phenomenon we call 'priming' is a good example.

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This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology.

Mind control is less common than TV would have you believe, but it's not impossible. The kinds of shortcuts built into our biological information processing tools leaves us open to manipulation. The phenomenon we call 'priming' is a good example.

What's priming?

Priming isn't the same as subliminal messaging, but it's in the same sort of domain. Essentially, certain types of events change the way you'll react to later events at a very subconscious level. That's not super specific, so let me give you an example.

Arguably, the most famous study on this effect was conducted back in the 90's. A bunch of students were told to create sentences from a 'randomly' generated list of words. There were two groupings of words, with two pretty extraordinary outcomes:

  • Some of the words were associated with rudeness, while others were associated with politeness. Those given the polite words interrupted the experimenter less often than those given the rude words.
  • Some of the words were reminiscent of the elderly (like: old, wrinkled, and most amusingly, Florida). Those given these words walked more slowly out of the experiment.

I'll point out that there was a third experiment to do with subliminal messaging, but that's a subject for another time. For the two outlined above, the effect seems to be pretty clear. Activate a certain stereotype in someone's mind, and whether they realise it or not, it's going to have an effect on their behaviour. This perhaps shouldn't surprise, given how fundamental stereotypes are to us.

How priming is used to manipulate us

Have you ever walked into a grocery store and mistaken it for a florist, with all the flowers there at the front? Have you noticed all the fresh produce is right at the door? No accident. All that 'fresh' smelling goodness is designed to make you feel more confident about all those preservatives. Or if you walk into some place that smells like disinfectant, then it may very well be that the owners are secretly encouraging you to keep the place clean.

They do it on TV too. Marketers will spring way more for ad spots that follow some kind of scene that'll help sell their product. If an ad is shown in the context of something related, then you're more likely to be open to buying that product. So for example, showing an ad for MacDonalds after one of those 'feast' scenes in GoT. When you see food on the screen, you're more likely to want food in real life. Innosight is one company that specialises in this kind of context-advert matching, and they cite an 18% increase in the ability of consumers to recall an in context ad. Consumers are also twice as likely to buy the product.

The scarier effects of priming

Priming has long been investigated with something called the Stroop task. The simplest form of this is if you colour a list of words a bunch of different colours, something like:

happy

sad

slothful

potato

Then you get people to read out the colours. What you find is that people read the colours slower on words that are more salient (important). So generally speaking, negative words (like sad, above) would lead to the reader taking longer to identify the colour. If you get people thinking about food, then the word potato would cause a similar kind of lag. Prime someone with a beach holiday, and maybe they'd stumble over slothful. Another classic is to prime something and then get them to read a list like the following:

red

green

blue

Priming something sad or scary before they read the colour of the ink (as opposed to the colour of the word) means that people will take longer to complete the list than someone who was primed with something neutral or happy.

The point is that when you prime people with something, it's acting on a subconscious level, whether they realise it or not. More than that, it will affect your thinking long after you've been primed. The implications are worrying. We already know that our brains are liable to employ shortcuts which don't always make intuitive sense. A more in-depth study had experimenters spill hot or cold drinks on participants. Later on, the participants were asked to rate a hypothetical person. If they had a hot drink spilled on them, they were less likely to use words like 'selfish' and 'cold' than those who had the cold drink spilled.

One more thing

A follow-up experiment to the old person priming tried to replicate the findings of slower walking, but were unsuccessful. But by manipulating the beliefs of the experimenters, they found something stranger. With people walking the same speed, if the experimenters believed the person had been primed with an 'old' stereotype, then they rated the walker as slower than if they believed they had not bee primed.

Now, this isn't to say that priming has no effect. I think we can safely assume that priming is a thing. But what this means is that perhaps our expectations are just as important as our unconscious primings. Either way, our perception of reality has much less to do with actual reality, and far more to do with what's going on in our mind.

Scary, huh?

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