This article originally published in The Northern Daily Leader on 19 July 2014
How did you feel after you read the heading of this column? Maybe got up from the sofa and dragged yourself to the kitchen? Or perhaps couldn’t get up at all, and just spent five minutes having a lazy half-snooze? Well, either one of those outcomes could have described your response if you are anything like the people in an intriguing study carried out by three researchers at New York University. In a 1996 paper with the forgetful title of ‘Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action’, the researchers outlined an experiment which looked at the impact that words can have on behaviour. In one of the experiments, participants were asked to unscramble the words in a sentence, under the ruse of it being a language proficiency test. For one group of people, the words had been carefully selected as to be associated with being elderly, although any words which had connotations to being slow were excluded. The other group were given words which had no particular association. After the participants had finished the word-unscrambling task, unbeknown to them, they were timed as they left the room and walked down a corridor to the lifts. The results of the experiment showed that those people who had been exposed to words associated with being elderly walked significantly slower to the lift than those who hadn’t. In essence, just seeing words like old, lonely, grey, retired and conservative changed the physical behaviour of people. Other similar experiments showed that being exposed to particular words made people either rude or more polite, depending on the words which they were asked to unscramble. The message again was that just seeing certain words can change behaviour, a tendency known as ‘priming’.
An easy way to see priming in action is to consider the response of the public to the Federal government budget in May. For weeks in the lead up to the budget, and for some time following the budget, the Prime Minister and the Treasurer were splashed across the media, warning of the ‘debt crisis’ and the ‘budget emergency’. Under the relentless bombardment of negativity, consumer confidence wilted, finally cracking in the week the budget was released, despite the fact that most of the major spending and entitlement cuts were at least a year away (and assuming passage of the budget through a hostile Senate). The detail was lost however in the noise and negativity. If you tell someone there’s an emergency or a crisis often enough, they’ll change their behaviour appropriately, regardless of the truth or otherwise. With the passage of time, the effects of priming will eventually dissipate, but not before more significant damage is done than a slow amble down the corridor to the lifts.