Priming and Other Mind Control

From Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman:

The main moral of priming research is that our thoughts and our behavior are influenced, much more than we know or want, by the environment of the moment. Many people find the priming results unbelievable, because they do not correspond to subjective experience. Many others find the results upsetting, because they threaten the subjective sense of agency and autonomy. If the content of a screen saver on an irrelevant computer can effect your willingness to help strangers without your being aware of it, how free are you?”

Excellent question. 🙂

For those who don’t know, priming is mentioning a specific thing in passing, and having its contents visibly change a subject’s response to a later question without their knowledge. It’s one of the many ways in which it’s possible to predictably change someone’s behavior without their knowledge simply by making a simple reference or showing them something in the background. Anchoring is a related technique where putting a number in a question heavily biases the answer in a very predictable way. For instance, if I ask one group of people “Are redwoods 1200 feet tall? How tall are redwoods?” to one group, and “Are redwoods 200 feet tall? How tall are redwoods”, people will not only predictably give higher numbers on the first and lower on the second, but the *amount* by which their guesses have been shifted is predictable. All of this happens without their knowledge. The fact that we are aware these kinds of things are going on does *not* make us immune. It’s being done to us all the time by advertisers, politicians, and anyone who wants to change our mind about things. Learning more about it is the only defense, but even for the most knowledgeable, it imperfect. We are all far more suggestible and our behavior more controllable, without our knowledge, than most of us believe.  Being willing to accept this is the first step to doing something about it, and believing you’re too smart for it to work on you is exactly what the car salesman wants to hear.

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