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Put a Pencil in Your Mouth... Seriously

How rational are you? We'd all like to think there are good reasons for what we do and that our decisions result from a conscious deliberate process. But, research shows that our subconscious drives many of our choices and it's significantly influenced by forces we aren't even aware of.

The power of priming influences thoughts, feelings and behaviors in a big way. In every cognitive process, there are instantaneous and subconscious processes also at work. The exact nature of the subconscious mind on cognitive function has been a topic of debate; however, that the subconscious plays a role in cognition is undeniable among neuroscientists, psychologists, and linguists.

Some argue that the unconscious mind is often more efficient and efficacious than the conscious mind especially when there are multiple data points to consider. Numerous studies show that the unconscious mind gathers and processes information much faster than the conscious brain. However, we can influence what happens in the subconscious without even realizing it. An excellent example of this is called priming.

Priming is an unconscious process where exposure to one stimulus influences the reaction to a subsequent one. Without conscious awareness, the brain makes representations or associations that often shape our thoughts or actions.

Vance Packard's groundbreaking work, The Hidden Persuaders published in 1957, explored the psychological and subliminal techniques used in advertising. Since then, we have a wealth of research illuminating how unconscious processes such as priming influence thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. And, brand marketers are putting this research to work.


power of priming

For example, Apple has masterfully cultivated a brand personality synonymous with nonconformity and creativity. Researchers found that priming people with an Apple logo made them think more creatively in a simple task on "unusual uses for a brick," while people primed with an IBM logo produced less creative results. The same study found that people primed with  the Disney logo behaved more honestly than those primed with the E! logo. (If this kind of stuff geeks you out, you can find the study here.)

Priming Studies

Communication scientists, San Bolkan and Peter Andersen explored the power of priming in a survey experiment. They asked people walking through a mall if they would stop and answer a few questions for a survey. In the first test, only 29 percent of those asked participated. In the second test, they approached people with a question: “Do you consider yourself a helpful person?” Almost everyone answered yes. Then the researchers asked them to take the survey. Participation jumped to 77 percent. That simple question primed people to demonstrate just how helpful they were.

power of cognitive priming

In another study, researchers at New York University asked subjects to do word puzzles. One group was given puzzles with words associated with kindness and patience, while the other group received word searches filled with words related to impolite behavior. After they finished the puzzles, the researchers asked the subjects to wait to speak with a lab assistant, who pretending to be on the phone.

The group that did word puzzles including the rude words waited less time before interrupting the lab assistant than those who were exposed to words related to kindness and patience. This is an example of priming in which merely seeing certain words influences thought and behavior.

In another study, researchers used words associated with the elderly like old, wrinkled, tired in conversation with one group of adults. They used age-neutral words in conversation with another group. The group primed with the elderly words walked away more slowly and reported much lower energy levels after the conversation than those primed with the age-neutral words.

A host of physical and emotional effects are triggered when we view warm fuzzy images of animals and babies. Research shows that images that show physical touch, kindness, protection, safety, and nurturing increase resilience to stress and prime the brain for positive behaviors toward others like care, compassion, and helpfulness.

In one study, subjects were shown a series of photos showing familiar household objects with one of four primes in the background: two figures together, one figure alone, two figures back to back or two objects. The researcher named the object, color, and function in each photograph but completely ignored the prime in the background.

power of cognitive priming

After the presentation of the pictures, the researcher left the room momentarily and returned with a bundle of six small sticks and ‘‘accidentally’’ dropped them on the floor.During the first 10 seconds after dropping the sticks, the experimenter said nothing. Some of the subjects began to help her pick up the sticks. During the next 10 seconds, the experimenter looked at the subjects who hadn’t started helping and said, ‘‘I dropped my sticks on the floor.’’

The results showed that in the first ten seconds after dropping the sticks those primed with the together figures spontaneously helped three times more than each of the other three conditions. The together prime primed their sense of helpfulness without prompting. But that isn't even the best part…. what is most remarkable is that the subjects were 18-month-old infants!

far side cartoon

Even simple actions can shape our emotions and how we feel. For example, college students were asked to read The Far Side cartoons and rate them for humor. One group was asked to read them while holding a pencil horizontally between their teeth forcing a smiling expression. A second group was asked to read them holding a pencil vertically forcing a frowning expression. Those holding a pencil between their teeth horizontally rated the same cartoons significantly funnier than the other group. They also reported feeling more light-hearted and less serious.

Psychologist, Daniel Kahneman asked attendees at the 2013 World Economic Forum in Davos to do the pencil smile experiment. Those who held the pencil horizontally forcing a smiling expression reported higher levels of happiness than those who held the pencil vertically forcing a frowning expression.

“Being amused tends to make you smile and smiling tends to make you feel amused.” -Daniel Kahneman

This demonstrates that the brain is wired for priming; it isn’t something that we learn. It also opens up a wealth of possibilities for future research including how subtle changes to the environment can positively prime anyone and promote prosocial behavior. But, be warned, it can be a tool or a weapon, and we need to tread lightly on the thin line between positive priming and potential manipulation of ourselves and others.

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