By AIF Staff

In his book “Thinking Fast and Slow”, Nobel Prize Winner in Economics Daniel Kahenman walks us through a wide range of experiments in behavioral sciences which unravel the nature of human brain and subtle minds – our patterns of thinking and how they are affected, and in turn affect everyday events and decision making.

On such effect is “Prime Effect” – which basically means that our behavior is modified by the ideas, thoughts and concepts which we absorb, sometimes without even paying much attention to it…Excerpts from the book on this phenomenon -

In the 1980s, psychologists discovered that exposure to a word causes immediate and measurable changes in the ease with which many related words could be recalled. If you have recently seen or heard the word EAT, you are temporarily more likely to complete the word fragment SO_P as SOUP rather than say, SOAP. However the opposite would happen, of course, if you had just seen WASH. This is the priming effect – the idea of EAT primes the idea of SOUP, while that of WASH primes the idea of SOAP.

Priming effect takes on many forms. If the idea of EAT is currently on your mind(irrespective of whether 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.

And, “prime” effect plays on even if we are not conscious of the concepts and the ideas that bombard us…

Priming is not restricted to concepts and words. You cannot know this from conscious experience, of course, but you mush 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 which 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, “find he it yellows 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 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 measure 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 form words with an elderly theme walked down the hallway significantly slowly than the others!

This “Florida” effect involves two stages of priming. First, the set of words primes thoughts of old age, though the word old is never mentioned, and second these thoughts prime a behavior, walking slowly, which is associated with old age. And all of this happens without any awareness. When they were questioned afterwards, none of the students reported noticing that words had had a common themes – and the idea of old age had not come wot 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 idea motor effect. Although you surely are not aware of it, reading this paragraph primed you as well( you might be be slower to get up)!

The idea motor effect, works, in reverse as well….that is your actions can influence your thoughts, and thoughts your action and so on…

A study conducted in German University was the mirror image of the experiment Bargh and his colleagues 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 almost one-third of their pace. After this brief experience, the participants were much quicker to recognize words related to old age, such as “forgetful, old and lonely”. Reciprocal priming effects tend to produce a coherent reaction : if you are primed to think of old age, you would tend to act old, and acting old would reinforce the thought of old age!

Simple, commen gestures can also unconsciously influence our thoughts and feelings. In one demonstration, people were asked to listen to message through new headphones. They were told that the purpose of the experiment was to test the quality of audio equipment.They were told to shake their heads to check for any distortions of sounds

Half the participants were told to nod their head up and down while others were told to shake it side to side. The messages they heard were radio editorials.

Those who nodded(a yes gesture) tended to accept the message they heard, but those who shook their head tended to reject it! Again, there was no awareness, just a habitual connection between an attitude of rejection or acceptance and its common physical expression…..The common admonition to “act calm and kind of regardless of how you feel” is very good advice : you are likely to be rewarded by actually feeling calm.

The conclusions of that can be drawn from this phenomenon are many -

  1. Are we subtly influenced by what happens around us, in the realm of ideas, concepts, ideologies and philosophies, even without us being consciously aware of it?
  2. Would, say, a highly sexualized media and movie atmosphere, warp our minds so that we start perceiving people more as objects of sensual gratification, without us wanting to be like that? Would become more lust prone? Does this drive or increase criminal behavior? Would portrayal of violence and sex on television and media influence our minds so that we are start behaving more violently towards other than what we do normally?
  3. Does this mean, that as a society, if we invested in idea of kindness, compassion – our brains would be primed to repeat them? 
  4. Does this imply that media houses and our directors/producers need to be more careful about the content they produce – for they “prime” the brains of millions who watch their movies and shows and digest them?
  5. Doesn’t this imply that as a part of our education, we also need to be actively shielded from content which might produce tendencies which are unethical and grossly insensitive – and that parents, society, educators, and media play a active role in it?

For if prime and idea-motor effects are linked, we should invest more in thoughts and concepts of a ideal society, the outcomes would be a much healthier society and a much more sensitive humanity.


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