Subject: Priming – The Florida Effect
Event: Birthday of psychologist John Bargh, 1955
We tend to think that our actions are a result of free will and that the decisions we make are based on conscious reasoning. Could it be, however, that we are influenced, or primed, by elements of our environment, such as words we read, an image we see, or even by the colors of the walls of the room we are in?
Social psychologist John Bargh, who was born on this day in 1955, would answer the above question in the affirmative, and his research on priming proves it.
In one famous experiment, Bargh asked New York University students to form four-word sentences from a set of five words. Half the students were given words associated with the elderly, such as “Florida,” “bald,” “wrinkle,” or “forgetful.” After the sentence constructing task was completed, the students were asked to walk down the hall to complete another experiment in a separate room. Bargh and his fellow researchers unobtrusively timed how long it took each student to walk down the hall from room to room. The results revealed that the students who created sentences with elderly-themed words walked more slowly than those who were given no elderly-themed words. After discovering this fascinating phenomenon, Bargh dubbed it “The Florida Effect” (1).
When you prime a lawnmower engine, you pump fuel into the engine’s cylinders so that the engine will fire when you attempt to start it. Bargh’s studies showed that the human mind can also be primed. The words Bargh used in his experiment primed the students’ thinking about the elderly; the thinking of the students then resulted in their walking more slowly than usual. The most shocking aspect of the study was that the students seemed totally oblivious to the priming. When asked if the words they used in the sentence had influenced their behavior, they insisted that there was no correlation between the words they read and their walking speed.
Is it possible to employ priming toward an admirable goal, such as helping students perform better on a test? Dutch researchers tried it out with questions from the board game Trivial Pursuit. Before testing, one group of students was primed for intelligent behavior: First, they were asked to imagine a typical professor; second, they were asked to list the behaviors or images that came to mind. Another group was primed in a different way: they were asked to think about soccer hooligans.
Following the priming, the individuals in each group answered 42 trivia questions: Students primed with the “professorial” frame of mind averaged 55.6% correct answers, while the “hooligan” mindset averaged 42.6% (2).
Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason: How were the students in Bargh’s study primed to walk slower, and what does this say about our concept of free will?
Challenge – Prime Yourself With the Professorial Mindset: Write a PSA for students that explains how they should prime themselves for tests. Explain how they can prime themselves using the professorial mindset, and contrast it with the less effective hooligan mindset.
Also on this day: Thomas Jefferson writes a letter to Charles Thomson, secretary to the Continental Congress, on January 9, 1816, in which he praises Epicureanism as “the most rational system remaining of the philosophy of the ancients, as frugal of vicious indulgence, and fruitful of virtue as the hyperbolical extravagances of his rival sects.”