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human nature, science

Priming and “Free Will”

In psychology, priming is an effect that occurs when a stimulus influences a subsequent response to a new stimulus.  In layman’s terms, it’s when one experience alters our perception of a later experience.  A classic experiment demonstrated this conclusively:  Subjects were given a set of “random” words and asked to arrange several of them into a coherent sentence.  (They were told they were being tested for language ability.)  The words weren’t all random, though.  Each set was overloaded with words associated with old age, such as wise, retired, sentimental, wrinkled, and bingo.  There was also a control group which had genuinely random words selected for them.  The real experiment occurred when the subjects left the building.  They were secretly filmed as they walked to the elevator.  And guess what.  The “elderly” group walked 15% slower than the control group!

In a nutshell, this is priming.  The implications for free will are a little bewildering.  I doubt that anyone would argue that we have the conscious ability to choose how fast to walk, but how do we address the reality that we often “choose” based on unconscious environmental factors over which we have no conscious control?

We do need to acknowledge that priming is not the same as sci-fi mind control.  It is a subtle unconscious “bump” or “tug” in a particular direction.  That is, if we are thirsty, it can influence our choice of soft drink.  If we are lonely, it can nudge us towards a potential mate.  It is what gives us a lot of our associations with our American identity.  Freedom, prosperity, New York City, Norman Rockwell… these are all concepts that have been subtly (and not so subtly) embedded into our collective subconscious for the entire 20th century.  They influence us in many ways that we may not ever realize.

Of course, advertisers use this effect to great effect.  Image recognition is everything, but it’s not just about an image.  It’s about what an image makes us feel.  The best logos are the ones that have managed to firmly embed themselves into the fabric of culture.  They have become identified with far more than the product they represent.  They are symbols of how we like to feel about ourselves.  They make us smile when we see them.

You’ve Been Primed

I want you to do a quick experiment with me.  Without thinking, think of a drink, and take note of the first drink that comes to your mind.  Got it?  The drink you are likely to have thought of has done just what I have written.  It has embedded itself in American culture since World War II.  It has had a prominent display in Times Square since 1932.  Company employees passed out free drinks when the Berlin Wall came down.  It has more movie appearances than any other drink.  Despite being nearly chemically identical to its major competition, it consistently and dramatically wins the culture wars.  It is Americana at its best.

You realize, of course, that I’m talking about Coke.  Did you think of a Coke first when I asked you to choose a drink?  Don’t feel bad if you did.  I had you well primed.  If you weren’t paying close attention, you may not have caught it, but now it should be obvious.  Go back to the first few paragraphs and you’ll see a list of words that are all associated with Coke:

  • Soft Drink
  • Freedom
  • New York
  • Norman Rockwell
  • Classic
  • Smile

Now that you see them in a list, can you remember all the ads that have incorporated these concepts?  “Have a Coke and a Smile,”  right?  I also gave you a not-so-subtle visual priming for Coke.  (Did you wonder what Santa had to do with all of this?)  Haddon Sundblom, a Swedish illustrator, was hired by Coca-Cola to remake Santa in the image of Coke.  Seriously.  Before that, the most common images were older European depictions, in which Santa was tall, thin, and dressed in more sedate colors like blue or green.  Coke made a conscious decision to make their product synonymous with Christmas.  And it worked.  I’ve intentionally left out any images of Coke for the purpose of this informal experiment, but google one now and compare the red on the can with Santa’s outfit.  It’s the same.  Coke has a patent on it.

Priming is just one of the many unconscious forces which shape our preferences and desires.  But even in its subtlety, it’s very powerful.  Soft drink fans who were examined with an fMRI enjoyed their drink more when they were shown an image of the Coke logo while drinking! Don’t let that slip by you.  When they were given the same drink twice, their physical pleasure increased just from seeing a logo.  There is nothing in the logo that could possibly have altered the chemistry of the drink, but the brains of the subjects changed their perception of reality on a subconscious level.  If you are a Coke fan, you have no choice but to enjoy your Coke more when you are also exposed to the logo.  How creepy is that?

This kind of unconscious alteration of our preferences can happen anywhere we have subjective likes and dislikes.  Unfortunately, we can’t even consciously choose to ignore the effect or “will” ourselves through it.  And before you protest that you hate Coke, and are therefore immune to priming, ask yourself how many positive associations you have with words and images dealing with nonconformity, independence, freedom of choice, intelligence, and standing out from the crowd.  Especially if you’re a Pepsi connoisseur, you should be careful.  In blind taste tests, most people can’t tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi.  You could flip a coin and get the same chance of guessing correctly.  What sort of things does Pepsi represent to you?

Finally, realize that our perceptions are much less comprehensive than we think.  Priming directs our attention, and contrary to our beliefs about our perceptions, we really don’t see much in any given scene.  You can prove this to yourself today.  Next time you go out into a crowded locale, find a Coke ad.  Focus on it for exactly 15 seconds.  When you’re done, make a list of what color shirts were being worn by the ten closest people to the ad.  But don’t cheat.  Don’t let yourself consciously take an inventory.  The purpose of this experiment is simply to demonstrate how little we see even when it’s in our field of vision.  You can do this to a friend.  Pick any highly visible aspect of the scene, ask them to focus on something else, and then ask for a detailed account of the thing they weren’t paying attention to.

Priming is powerful stuff, and it’s everywhere.  Take a couple of days and see if you can spot as many examples as possible.  You’ll be astonished.



5 thoughts on “Priming and “Free Will”

  1. Yup.
    I thought of coke.
    Brilliant!! 😀

    Posted by Strafio | June 9, 2010, 6:31 am
  2. Didn’t think of coke. Thought of scotch and soda. But then again, I was reading a Hamby article, so that kind of makes sense.

    Posted by Clint | June 9, 2010, 9:55 am


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