Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking- Malcolm Gladwell
…This test was devised by a very clever psychologist named John Bargh. It’s an example of what is called a priming experiment, and Bargh and others have done numerous even more fascinating variations of it, all of which show just how much goes on behind that locked door of our unconscious. For example, on one occasion Bargh and two colleagues at New York University, Mark Chen and Lara Burrows, staged an experiment in the hallway just down from Bargh’s office. They used a group of undergraduates as subjects and gave everyone in the group one of two scrambled-sentence tests. The first was sprinkled with words like “aggressively,” “bold,” “rude,” “bother,” “disturb,” “intrude,” and “infringe.” The second was sprinkled with words like “respect,” “considerate,” “appreciate,” “patiently,” “yield,” “polite,” and “courteous.” In neither case were there so many similar words that the students picked up on what was going on. (Once you become conscious of being primed, of course, the priming doesn’t work.) After doing the test—which takes only about five minutes—the students were instructed to walk down the hall and talk to the person running the experiment in order to get their next assignment.
Whenever a student arrived at the office, however, Bargh made sure that the experimenter was busy, locked in conversation with someone else—a confederate who was standing in the hallway, blocking the doorway to the experimenter’s office. Bargh wanted to learn whether the people who were primed with the polite words would take longer to interrupt the conversation between the experimenter and the confederate than those primed with the rude words. He knew enough about the strange power of unconscious influence to feel that it would make a difference, but he thought the effect would be slight. Earlier, when Bargh had gone to the committee at NYU that approves human experiments, they had made him promise that he would cut off the conversation in the hall at ten minutes. “We looked at them when they said that and thought, You’ve got to be kidding,” Bargh remembered. “The joke was that we would be measuring the difference in milliseconds. I mean, these are New Yorkers. They aren’t going to just stand there. We thought maybe a few seconds, or a minute at most.”
But Bargh and his colleagues were wrong. The people primed to be rude eventually interrupted—on average after about five minutes. But of the people primed to be polite, the overwhelming majority—82 percent—never interrupted at all. If the experiment hadn’t ended after ten minutes, who knows how long they would have stood in the hallway, a polite and patient smile on their faces?
“The experiment was right down the hall from my office,” Bargh remembers. “I had to listen to the same conversation over and over again. Every hour, whenever there was a new subject. It was boring, boring. The people would come down the hallway, and they would see the confederate whom the experimenter was talking to through the doorway. And the confederate would be going on and on about how she didn’t understand what she was supposed to do. She kept asking and asking, for ten minutes, ‘Where do I mark this? I don’t get it.’” Bargh winced at the memory and the strangeness of it all. “For a whole semester this was going on. And the people who had done the polite test just stood there.”
Priming is not, it should be said, like brainwashing. I can’t make you reveal deeply personal details about your childhood by priming you with words like “nap” and “bottle” and “teddy bear.” Nor can I program you to rob a bank for me. On the other hand, the effects of priming aren’t trivial. Two Dutch researchers did a study in which they had groups of students answer forty-two fairly demanding questions from the board game Trivial Pursuit. Half 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 percent of the questions right. The other half of the students were asked to first sit and think about soccer hooligans. They ended up getting 42.6 percent of the Trivial Pursuit questions right. The “professor” group didn’t know more than the “soccer hooligan” group. They weren’t smarter or more focused or more serious. They were simply in a “smart” frame of mind, and, clearly, associating themselves with the idea of something smart, like a professor, made it a lot easier—in that stressful instant after a trivia question was asked—to blurt out the right answer. The difference between 55.6 and 42.6 percent, it should be pointed out, is enormous. That can be the difference between passing and failing.
The psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson created an even more extreme version of this test, using black college students and twenty questions taken from the Graduate Record Examination, the standardized test used for entry into graduate school. When the students were asked to identify their race on a pretest questionnaire, that simple act was sufficient to prime them with all the negative stereotypes associated with African Americans and academic achievement—and the number of items they got right was cut in half. As a society, we place enormous faith in tests because we think that they are a reliable indicator of the test taker’s ability and knowledge. But are they really? If a white student from a prestigious private high school gets a higher SAT score than a black student from an inner-city school, is it because she’s truly a better student, or is it because to be white and to attend a prestigious high school is to be constantly primed with the idea of “smart”?