Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Power of the Subconscious

The NY Times has an article on their site now pointing out how our subconscious mind has a profound effect on our behavior. For instance:

In a recent experiment, psychologists at Yale altered people’s judgments of a stranger by handing them a cup of coffee.

The study participants, college students, had no idea that their social instincts were being deliberately manipulated. On the way to the laboratory, they had bumped into a laboratory assistant, who was holding textbooks, a clipboard, papers and a cup of hot or iced coffee — and asked for a hand with the cup.

That was all it took: The students who held a cup of iced coffee rated a hypothetical person they later read about as being much colder, less social and more selfish than did their fellow students, who had momentarily held a cup of hot java.

In one 2004 experiment, psychologists led by Aaron Kay, then at Stanford University and now at the University of Waterloo, had students take part in a one-on-one investment game with another, unseen player.

Half the students played while sitting at a large table, at the other end of which was a briefcase and a black leather portfolio. These students were far stingier with their money than the others, who played in an identical room, but with a backpack on the table instead.

The mere presence of the briefcase, noticed but not consciously registered, generated business-related associations and expectations, the authors argue, leading the brain to run the most appropriate goal program: compete. The students had no sense of whether they had acted selfishly or generously.

In another experiment, published in 2005, Dutch psychologists had undergraduates sit in a cubicle and fill out a questionnaire. Hidden in the room was a bucket of water with a splash of citrus-scented cleaning fluid, giving off a faint odor. After completing the questionnaire, the young men and women had a snack, a crumbly biscuit provided by laboratory staff members.

The researchers covertly filmed the snack time and found that these students cleared away crumbs three times more often than a comparison group, who had taken the same questionnaire in a room with no cleaning scent. “That is a very big effect, and they really had no idea they were doing it,” said Henk Aarts, a psychologist at Utrecht University and the senior author of the study.


In one 2006 study, for instance, researchers had Northwestern University undergraduates recall an unethical deed from their past, like betraying a friend, or a virtuous one, like returning lost property. Afterward, the students had their choice of a gift, an antiseptic wipe or a pencil; and those who had recalled bad behavior were twice as likely as the others to take the wipe. They had been primed to psychologically “cleanse” their consciences.

Once their hands were wiped, the students became less likely to agree to volunteer their time to help with a graduate school project. Their hands were clean: the unconscious goal had been satisfied and now was being suppressed, the findings suggest.

I'm trying to figure out what implications these studies have. My first thought is to use this information to guard myself against subconscious persuasion. However, I fear that the whole point is that the persuasion is subconscious, so there is really no way to guard against it. The only implication seems to be that we are very easily manipulated, and there's not much we can do about it.

However, we may turn the tables and use this effect to our benefit. For instance, I have always been a proponent of dressing professionally for work--I wear a tie at least three days per week. The subliminal message would seem to be that I am serious and businesslike--which I'm not. But the tie at least counteracts, possibly neutralizes, my relaxed, flippant demeanor.

Think, too, about the effect this could have on personal relationships. What little thing can we do to predispose people to like us? Have them hold a cup of warm coffee? Ask them, at the start of the date, to tell us about their dream date? Surely, it seems most important NOT to talk about anything negative. Put them in a positive mindset, and the night is yours. The possibilities seem endless, and exciting, and also kind of scary, in the sense that we may be able to wield much more power over people than they will be able to discover.

Read the entire article here.

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