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The young students who thought they were old

<<Imagine that I’m a professor, and I’ve asked you to come and see me in my office. You walk down a long corridor, into my office and sit down at a table.

In front of you is a sheet of paper with a list of 5-word sets. I ask you to make a grammatical 4-word sentence as quickly as possible out of each set. It’s called a scrambled sentence test. Ready?

1. him was worried she always

2. from are Florida oranges temperature

3. ball the throw toss silently

4. shoes give replace old the

5. he observes occasionally people watches

6. be will seat lonely they

7. sky the seamless grey is

8. should now withdraw forgetful we

9. us bingo sing play let

10. sunlight makes temperature wrinkle raisins

That seemed fairly straightforward, right? Wrong. Believe it or not, after finishing that test you would have walked out of my office and back down the hall more slowly than you walked in. With that simple test I affected the way you behaved. How?

Scattered throughout the list are certain words such as ‘worried’, ‘Florida’, ‘old’, ‘lonely’, ‘grey’, ‘bingo’, and ‘wrinkle’. It seemed like just a language test, but I was also making part of your brain – the adaptive unconscious – think about the state of being old. It didn’t tell the rest of your brain about its sudden obsession, but it took it seriously and you acted old. You walked slowly.

This test – invented by psychologist John Bargh – is an example of a priming experiment. Many fascinating variations of this experiment have been conducted, all showing just how much goes on behind the locked door of our subconscious.

One such test at New York University sprinkled words like ‘aggressively’, ‘bold’, ‘rude’, ‘bother’, ‘disturb’, ‘intrude’, and ‘infringe’ through a scrambled-sentence test for one group of students. A second group had words like ‘respect’, ‘considerate’, ‘appreciate’, ‘patiently’, ‘yield’, ‘polite’, and ‘courteous’ sprinkled through their test.

Both groups of students were then instructed to walk down the hall and ask the person running the next experiment for the next assignment. But when the student got there, they made sure the experimenter was busy, locked in a conversation with someone else for ten minutes.

Bargh wanted to learn whether the people primed with the polite words would take longer to interrupt the conversation than those primed with the rude words.

“We thought we’d be measuring the difference in milliseconds. I mean, these are New Yorkers. They aren’t going to just stand there.”

The people primed to be rude eventually interrupted – on average after about 5 minutes. But of the people primed to be polite, the overwhelming majority – 82% – never interrupted at all. They just stood there.

Priming is not like brainwashing. But its effects are not trivial either.

Two Dutch researchers conducted a study with 42 fairly demanding questions from the board game Trivial Pursuit. Half of the students were asked to think for five minutes beforehand what it would mean to be a professor and write down everything that came to mind. Those students got 55.6% of the questions right.

The other half of the students were asked to think about soccer hooligans. These students got 42.6% of the questions right. That’s a huge difference. The students weren’t any smarter or more focused or more serious. But priming had made an enormous difference – the difference between passing and failing.>>

Malcolm Gladwell, Blink (The Power of Thinking Without Thinking)

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