Published on March 22nd, 2013 | by Brian Gendron
How priming got me into (just a bit of) trouble.
When given the right ammunition, the mind is like a gun that fires with no warning. Sometimes the gun goes off and no one gets hurt. Other times (and in a recent case of my own) we end up looking like a dingleberry in front of an audience of people.
Remember this, by the way?
[Viewer Discretion Advised: Gun-safety ‘expert’ shoots self in leg, followed by nonchalant attempt at continuing discussion.]
Anyways, I did not shoot myself with a gun, but my psychological weaponry did misfire the other day, landing me in a slightly sticky situation. Before I get into the details, allow me to introduce the classic psychological phenomenon known as priming.
According to Wikipedia, priming is “an implicit memory effect in which exposure to a stimulus influences a response to a later stimulus” (2013). Put differently, a subconscious link between two things is forged, thereby making retrieval of a second memory ready to fire as soon as the brain is loaded with the first.
An example, perhaps? Let’s say you’re at a restaurant and overhear someone say the word ‘fruit’ at the next table over.
As you subsequently peruse the menu to decide on what dessert to order, you might be faster at recognizing the apple pie compared to the cheesecake. This is, of course, if apple and fruit are closer in the brain’s network.
Plenty of research is dedicated to the effects of priming in humans, but some of the most widely cited examples come from a series of studies out of New York University in the 1990’s.
In these priming experiments, participants were given a scrambled sentence test and asked to formulate complete sentences from a random bunch of words.
Some people completed the task quickly, and other people took a while. Regardless, the researchers had no interest in how long it took to complete the test, or even what sentences people formed.
That was just to load the participants’ brains with a new clip–the researchers wanted to expose people to certain words/themes, in an attempt to prime them.
In experiment 1, participants were given words associated with being rude (e.g., disturb, annoyingly, or bluntly). As such, they were more likely to engage in rude behavior, such as interrupting someone, compared to a control group who got a different, neutral list.
“Uh, sir, I’m done with your stupid experiment.”
In a second experiment, the key words were stereotypically associated with old people (the researchers really didn’t hold back, using words like Florida, bingo, and wrinkle). Participants who used these words in the scramble test walked significantly slower down a hallway upon exit compared to a control group. The argument is that old people walk slow, and these participants had just been primed.
You’ve been primed!
[America's next great psychology-based prank show]
According to psychologists, priming happens all the time. For example, that violent media you watch every day primes you to be more violent in your every day life. Watch a horror flick, or see some twisted footage on the news, and you may be more inclined to lash out at others.
One related study showed that simply being in the presence of a weapon makes people more aggressive, thus raising concerns about having guns in the home.
Importantly, there is a debate over the validity of priming studies. Some believe that experimental findings are inflated because of serious issues like the file-drawer problem, which means studies that don’t yield significant results are less likely to be published.
Critics also argue that participants in these studies are only acting a certain way after having guessed what the “real” purpose of the experiment is.
In fact, I had my reservations, too. Especially after reading those seriously messed up words about old people used in the NYU study (bitter, forgetful, ancient, helpless, the list of terribly rude adjectives continues!).
You can’t help to wonder if the researchers’ true hypotheses were simply too obvious to the participants.
Meanwhile, there is a plethora of published findings, as well as studies with an array of applications, so priming research isn’t going anywhere soon.
Unfortunately for me, I recently learned that priming is all too real (at least, this is my story and I’m sticking to it). I was having a discussion on ‘seemingly bizarre foods from other cultures’ when it happened. Someone mentioned frog legs, another person mentioned insects, and another person mentioned dogs. I haven’t eaten dog, but I imagine it tastes similar to some of the classics.
Oh, wait. This is the part where the person tells me she said “DUCK” not “DOG” – I think I made the assumption because she’s Asian! Whoops.
At first I tried to play it cool like that guy in the video above, but soon I fessed up. It was a primed association, I couldn’t help it. Literally.
We had a laugh then we went out for hot dogs.
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