I’m sure you have heard of subliminal messages. You know that classic story where it was alleged that flashing the words DRINK COKE on a movie screen for a fraction of a second would increase cola buying behavior at the concession stand.  Well, that was a hoax, but you should know that I can, in other ways, tap into your subconscious thoughts and make you smarter, dumber, more assertive, or more passive for a short period of time.


This is not brainwashing!  It has a different name.  In the field of psychology, this interesting phenomena is referred to as primingJohn Bargh (now at Yale University) and colleagues formerly at New York University demonstrated the legitimacy of priming in a very interesting paper entitled Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action (Bargh, Chen, & Burrows, 1996).  These researchers contend “that social behavior is often triggered automatically on the mere presence of relevant situational features [and that] this behavior is unmediated by conscious perceptual or judgmental processes.”  One of the studies they used to empirically demonstrate the implications of automatic social behavior (priming) involved a group of undergraduates from NYU who were given the scrambled sentence test.  The test involves the presentation of a series of five scrambled word groupings.  From each grouping one is to devise a grammatical four word sentence.  For example, one of the groupings might include the words: blue the from is sky.  From this grouping your job would be to write The sky is blue.  A typical scrambled sentence test takes about five minutes.


The scrambled sentence test is a diversion and a means to present words that may influence or prime the subject’s behavior, thoughts, or capabilities.  In this study the subjects were randomly assigned to one of two groups.  One group was presented with scrambled sentences that were sprinkled with words like “bold,” “intrude,” “bother,” “rude,” “infringe,” and “disturb.”  The second group was presented with scrambled sentences containing words like “patiently,” “appreciate,” “yield,” “polite,” and “courteous.”  Each student independently completed their test in one room and were told upon completion to walk down the hall to get their next task from an experimenter in another office.  For every subject, however, there was another student (a stooge) at the experimenter’s office asking a series of questions forcing the subject to wait.   Bargh and colleagues predicted that those primed with words like “rude” and “intrude” would interrupt the stooge and barge in quicker than those primed with words like “polite” and “yield.”    Bargh anticipated that the difference between the groups would be measured in milliseconds or at most, seconds.  These were New Yorkers, after all, with a proclivity to be very assertive (Gladwell, 2005).  The results were surprisingly quite dramatic!


Those primed with the “rude” words interrupted after about 5 minutes.  Interestingly, the university board responsible for approving experiments involving human subjects limited the wait period in the study to a maximum of ten minutes. The vast majority (82%) of those primed with the “polite” words never interrupted at all.   It is unknown how long they would have waited.  The difference between these groups based simply on the nature of the priming words was huge!  In the same paper Bargh et al., (1996) presented how students primed with words denoting old age (e.g., worried, Florida, lonely, gray, bingo, forgetful) walked more slowly leaving the office after completing the scrambled sentence test than they did on their way to the testing office.  It is suggested that the subjects mediated their behavior as a result of thoughts planted in their sub-conscious pertaining to being old.  These thoughts, in this case, resulted in the subjects behaving older (e.g., walking more slowly).


Priming one to be more or less polite or sprite is interesting, but there are disturbing and perhaps very damaging implications of this phenomena.


Dijksterhuis and van Knippenberg, a research team from Holland, looked at how priming might affect intellectual performance (1998).  Their subjects were divided into two random groups.  The first group was tasked for five minutes with thinking and writing down attributes pertaining to being a college professor.  The second group was tasked with thinking about and listing the attributes of soccer hooligans.  Following this thinking and writing task, the subjects were given 47 challenging questions from the board game Trivial Pursuits.  Those in the “professorial” priming group got 55.6% of the items correct while those primed with soccer hooliganism got only 42.6% correct.  One group was not smarter than the other – but it is contended that those in the “smart” frame of mind were better able to tap into their cognitive resources than those with a less erudite frame of mind.


And then there is the research from Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson (1995).  These psychologists investigated the impact on African Americans of reporting one’s race before taking a very difficult test.  They employed African American college students and a test made up of 20 questions from the Graduate Record Exam (GRE).  The students were randomly split into two groups.  One group had to indicate their race on the test while the others did not.  Those who indicated their race got half as many of the GRE items correct as their non-race-reporting counterparts.  Simply reporting that they were African American seemed to prime them for lower achievement.


All of these effects were accomplished completely and totally outside the awareness of the involved parties.  In fact, this is an essential attribute.  Effective priming absolutely necessitates that it be done outside the subject’s awareness.  Awareness negates the effect.


Regardless, consider the implications, intended or otherwise of such priming.  Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink notes: “The results from these experiments are, obviously quite disturbing.  They suggest that what we think of as freewill is largely an illusion: much of the time, we are simply operating on automatic pilot, and the way we think and act – and how well we think and act on the spur of the moment – are a lot more susceptible to outside influences than we realize.” (p. 58).


Yes, It is disturbing on a personal level with regard to the vulnerability of rational decision making, but I am more concerned about the ethical implications of our insight into this tool. Priming may be used by those with the power, influence, and intentions to manipulate outcomes to serve ideological purposes.  On yet another level the reality of this phenomena supports my contention in Do we all get a fair start? that there is no true equal starting point.  Societal morays and the media in particular shape how we think about others and ourselves in profound ways.  We all are susceptible to stereotypes, prejudices, and biases and these tendencies can cut in multiple directions.  They can also be used to bolster negative attitudes or weaken individuals in destructive ways.  I am not suggesting that the sky is falling or that there is a huge ideological conspiracy going on, but we must be aware of our vulnerabilities in this regard.  And we must act to avoid constraining individuals as a function of subgroup affiliation.




Bargh, J. A., Chen, M.,  & Burrows, L. (1996).  Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol. 71, No. 2. 230-244


Dijksterhuis, A., & van Knippenberg, A. (1998). The relation between perception and behavior or how to win a game of Trivial Pursuit. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 74, 865-877.


Gladwell, M. (2005).  Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Little, Brown and Company: New York.


Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 69  No. 5. 797–811.