In a recent blog post, Jennifer Stuart provided a link to this NYTimes article about the unconscious priming of conscious decisions. It’s been demonstrated experimentally, for example, that strangers who bump into you are more likely to judge you as a “cold” person, unsociable and selfish, if you’re holding an iced latte in your hand than if you’re holding a cup of hot coffee. The author of the article explains:
Psychologists say that “priming” people in this way is not some form of hypnotism, or even subliminal seduction; rather, it’s a demonstration of how everyday sights, smells and sounds can selectively activate goals or motives that people already have. More fundamentally, the new studies reveal a subconscious brain that is far more active, purposeful and independent than previously known.
Here’s a possible example of unconscious priming that I experienced yesterday. I graduated from Michigan State University, and while I never thought much of the school and didn’t really enjoy my time there, for some reason I have continued to follow its basketball and football teams. Yesterday the MSU Spartans were playing the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers in a televised football game. Michigan State, underperforming all season, was hanging onto a precarious lead against the nationally-ranked Nebraska team. As the clock ticked down toward the end of the fourth quarter I heard a knock. You can imagine my irritation when, upon opening the door, I saw two strangers holding clipboards standing there. As I think back on it now, I don’t recall either of them holding any sort of beverage. “I’m watching the game,” I volunteered in order to ward off whatever spiel they intended to sling at me. “Sorry,” one of them said; “are you voting for Obama?” Canvassers. “No,” I replied; I’m voting Green.” Smiling cordially, the two thanked me and walked away.
Now it’s true that I had been leaning toward the Green Party despite the fact that I can’t even remember the name of their presidential candidate. On the other hand, confronted with the dead certainty that the Green candidate will lose the election combined with the Democrats’ traditional lesser-of-two-evils argument, I’ve persistently thought that I ought to “make my vote count” by choosing Obama despite my disappointment with his right-leaning politics. Now, in revealing my decision to the Obama canvassers, I had revealed it also to myself: no to Obama, yes to Green.
But why had my decision suddenly crystallized? I was irritated by the interruption in my game-watching: was I venting my irritation on the interrupters’ candidate? And Green: might my statement of support have been primed by the fact that the MIchigan State football team’s colors are green and white? “Go Green! Go White!” That’s the traditional cheer that erupts periodically from the crowded Spartan Stadium, a cheer that I’d no doubt heard several times while watching the game.
I closed the door on the two canvassers and resumed my spot in front of the TV. MSU would go on to lose the football game when Nebraska scored a touchdown with 6 seconds remaining. Will my irritation with the green team now override my irritation with the canvassers, resulting in my switching back to Obama before I step into the voting booth on Tuesday? Or will my unconscious now infiltrate me with dissonance-reduction and effort-justification tactics for reinforcing, with logic cold as iced latte and passion steamy as hot coffee, my conscious public commitment to the Green Party? The fate of the nation hangs in the balance.