Tuesday, May 7, 2013


I'd go to bed, but two bowls of dinner soup rest heavy in my stomach. I'm reminded of In Defense of Food, where Michael Pollan mentioned that folks who ate soup from bottomless bowls, kept full by a hose connected to the bowls, ate much more than those who ate from regular bowls.

"How was the soup?" says Virginia.

Very filling.

Perhaps I'm primed for a fitful sleep, which reminds me of a book I'm reading, Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. Priming. We like to think we are unique and independent thinkers. Experiments show we may not be so special, like the students who were asked to make a sentence using four of five words. One group was given words like: Florida, forgetful, bald, gray, wrinkle. The students were sent out to perform another experiment in an office down the hall. The walk was what the experiment was all about. The group asked to fashion a sentence from words with an elderly theme walked down the hallway more slowly than the other students.

So, the set of words primed thoughts of old age even though the word old was not mentioned. And the words primed a behavior -- walking slowly -- which is associated with old age.

Then there is the example of the office kitchen, where for many years users had been encouraged to contribute to an honor box to cover the cost of the coffee and tea. For a period of ten weeks, a picture was posted above the list of suggested prices, with no warning or explanation. A new image appeared each week. One week it was a picture of flowers. The next week it was a picture of eyes that appeared to be looking directly at the observer. Back and forth, flowers, eyes.

Would you believe that the contributions to the honor box changed significantly? For the first week, two eyes stared at the coffee or tea drinkers, who contributed an average of 70 pence. The second week, with a flower picture, they contributed an average of 15 pence. The trend continued, with the users contributing almost three times as much during the weeks of the eyes as during the weeks of the flowers.

Oh, and then there's a very unsettling experiment, in which participants were shown a list of five words from which they were required to construct a 4-word phrase with a money theme ("high a salary desk paying" became "a high-paying salary"). Other primes were more subtle -- an irrelevant money-related object in the background, such as a stack of Monopoly money on a table or a computer with a screen-saver of dollar bills floating in water.

Money-primed people became more independent than those without the money trigger. They persisted almost twice as long trying to solve a problem before asking the leader for help. They were more selfish, less willing to spend time helping another person who pretended to be confused about an experimental task. When an experimenter dropped a handful of pencils on the floor, the participants with money on their minds (unconsciously) picked up fewer pencils. In one experiment, participants were told they would soon have a get-acquainted session with another person and were asked to set up two chairs while the experimenter left to get that person. Participants primed by money chose to stay much farther apart than their nonprimed peers (118 versus 80 centimeters).

"Makes you wonder if you should begin every morning by going to the mirror and giving yourself a big smile, doesn't it?" says Virginia.

I think that's a very good idea.


  1. Kind of reminds me of something I read. Do you wake up and say, "Good morning, Lord" or "Good lord, it's morning"?

    I hope this 3rd rainy morning in a row hasn't primed me to be grumpy today.

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