How to brainwash people :-)

Originally published at

What if someone told you that it was possible to prime people’s behaviour around you, and that this would directly affect how that person deals with the world around them subsequently? I learned this from ‘Blink’ by Gladwell, and it’s slightly unsettling.

A psychologist named John Bargh conducted a priming experiment where he told people to come to his office and take a sentence-arranging test, and then he looked at how they behaved after the test. As an example: one jumbled sentence could be ‘shoes give replace old the’. There were around 10 of these sentences to un-jumble.

The sentence puzzles themselves are easy to solve. However, the real impact of the study comes after you leave the office. After you had left the office, you would have walked down the corridor more slowly than you had previously walked in. The test affected the way you behaved, because it was primed with words such as “worried”, “Florida”, “old”, “lonely” and so on.

This happens because your ‘adaptive unconscious’ brain is picking up on the subtle cues that come from words we associate with being old, and reacting to them by literally adjusting the way you deal with your environment. In this case, it slowed your walking speed down because it had been slightly primed to think you were old.

Lets not go 0–100 here. Gladwell is quick to reassure that priming is not the same as brainwashing, it’s not like you could subtly use words associated with my childhood such as “mum”, “sleep” or “dummy” and I would reveal my deepest kept secrets about how I sucked my thumb until my mid-teens..

On the other hand, the effects of priming aren’t trivial. In the book, Gladwell introduces the story of two Dutch researchers who did a study in which they had groups of students answer forty-two fairly demanding questions from a board game called Trivial Pursuit.

Half of the students were asked to take five minutes beforehand to think about what it would mean to be a professor and write down everything that came to mind. Those students got 55.6%. The other half were asked to sit down and think about soccer hooligans. They got 42.6% right. That gap is enormous. The students had matching aptitudes for the test, but their unconscious brain was primed differently. To university students, even being able to add 2% to your overall score could be the difference between a 1st and a 2:1.

This is a small demonstration of the power of your unconscious mind. It whirrs away while we go about our day, and most of the time is an exceptionally useful tool. However, be aware that when primed in a certain way, it can have a profound effect on how you deal with reality.