The more I learn about how our natural environment manipulates our behaviour, the more it fascinates me.
Enter ‘priming’ – something that pulls our strings far more than we realize. To demonstrate this, Daniel Kahneman quotes an experiment where American students aged between 18 and 22 were required to perform an activity where they had to unscramble sets of words such as “finds he it yellow instantly”. For one set of students, the words included terms that are associated with the elderly – Florida, forgetful, bald, grey and so on. When they had finished the activity, students were asked to walk to another experiment in an office down the hall. While they did so, the experimenters measured their walking speed. They found that the group that had the elderly themed words walked a little slower than the other group.
Mere mentions of words related to the elderly had changed the behaviour of these young students. Further, it had done so without their conscious knowledge. For when this student group was tested later, they showed no signs of having registered the elderly theme in their activity.
In the same chapter, Kanheman speaks about how money primes independence. Students primed with money were likely to persevere twice as hard at solving a tough problem. However, at the same time, it primed selfishness. The same students were less willing to help another student who pretended to be confused. They also picked up fewer pencils when an experimenter accidentally dropped them on the floor.
While these findings are troubling, they show us the interesting connection between independence and selfishness. Independence implies freedom, but comes at a cost. When we are inter-dependent, we form grounds to make a lasting connection with family members and friends who support us. Being independent could slowly chip away at our empathy – our trigger for helping other people. There is but a thin line between being self-reliant and self-centered.
The most scary part is that all this manipulation of our behaviour happens without our slightest realization. Much like that of those unsuspecting students.
Inspiration: Thinking, fast and slow – Daniel Kanheman