How minds can be primed without our knowing it

Double click to enlarge.  Source: Eva-Lotta Lamm

When Barack Obama was thinking about running for President, his supporters wrote many words trying to dispel the misconception that Obama was a Muslim.   But the more they tried to this belief, the more it persisted.   People forgot the argument, and just remembered, subconsciously, the words “Obama” and “Muslim”.

Obama supporters instead started writing about Obama’s Christian beliefs and his church attendance.   That helped—although it also called attention to the inflammatory sermons of Obama’s pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

The “Obama-Muslim” link is an example of how unconscious anchors shape our thinking without us realizing it, and of not only how we mislead ourselves, but leave ourselves open to manipulation by others.

This fits in with the writings of research psychologist Daniel Kahneman, in his 2011 best-seller, Thinking Fast and Slow, and elsewhere.  He says human beings are more inclined to rely on intuition (fast thinking), which operates between the level of consciousness, than on conscious reasoning (slow thinking).

The most disturbing part of the book is how others can intentionally manipulate us by priming our intuitive minds without our realizing it.

Vance Packard wrote about this possibility in The Hidden Persuaders in 1957.   Facebook in 2012 ran an experiment to see if it could change its clients’ moods by manipulating its news feed.

In the 2016 election, Facebook worked with the Donald Trump campaign, as it routinely works with advertisers, to micro-target voters based on information they’ve left on social media.   Facebook would have provided the same service to the Clinton campaign, but they didn’t ask.

A company called Cambridge Analytica claimed to have used artificial intelligence to create individual psychological profiles on 220 million registered American voters, and to have used this to support the Trump presidential campaign.  Cambridge Analytica also supported the British campaign to leave the European Union.

None of this is mind control.  People with firm opinions are not likely to change their minds based on subliminal or targeted messages.   The aim is to increase sales of a certain product or votes for a certain candidate by a few percentage points.

But to the degree that mind manipulation is possible, the advertisers and propagandists are going to get better at it.   That’s cause for concern.


Here are examples from Thinking, Fast and Slow on how anchors prime our minds in certain ways without our realizing it.

  • Voting on an Arizona school bond issue were more favorable in polling places actually located in schools than elsewhere.  People shown images of classrooms and school lockers also were more favorable than those who weren’t.  This difference was greater than the average difference between parents of school children and the rest of the public.
  • University staff members contributed more to an “honesty box” when there was a poster of eyes looking at them than when the poster only showed flowers.

  • Experienced real estate agents gave a higher appraisal to a property when the asking price was high than when it was low, even though they claimed to not be influence by the asking price.
  • Experimental psychologists gave one of two word-association tests to groups of students.  One of the tests primed students with words such as Florida, forgetful, bald, grey or wrinkle, associated with the elderly.  Students who took that test, although not consciously thinking about old age, walked more slowly to another test location down the hall than students who took the other test.
  • Students who were told to walk more slowly than normal were quicker afterwards to pick up on words associated with the elderly, although they hadn’t been consciously thinking about the elderly
  • In an experiment, students in one group were told to hold pencils in their mouths by the eraser end, with the point sticking out, which sort-of simulates smiling, while another group were told to hold pencils in their months sideways, which sort-of simulates frowning.  The smilers found a set of Far Side cartoons funnier than the frowners did.  The frowners had a stronger reaction to pictures of starving children and accident victims.
  • People who were primed with images of money became (1) more independent, (2) more persevering, (3) less helpful and (4) less sociable.
  • People who were primed with images of death became more receptive to authoritarian ideas.
  • People who were told to think about stabbing a co-worker in the back were more likely afterwards to buy soap, disinfectant or detergent than batteries juice or candy.  If you feel your soul is stained, you are more likely to clean your body.  Psychologists call this the Lady Macbeth effect.
  • A study of parole judges in Israel showed they were more likely to give decisions favorable to the prisoner right after they had eaten.

Here are is another example, not from the book, on how prices can be set to prime buyers’ choices.

Source: The Flybook

Again, this not mind control.   It doesn’t necessarily work on any particular individual.  If you understand priming and anchoring, you can put yourself on guard.

The danger would be when that when you are caught unawares—when you receive some message over the Internet or otherwise that you accept as genuine, and it really is in the service of some propagandist you don’t know about.


Daniel Kahneman: “We’re Beautiful Devices” by Oliver Burkeman for The Guardian.

The Friendship That Created Behavioral Economics, an interview with Michael Lewis for The Atlantic about the collaboration between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

How to Dispel Your Illusions, a review of Thinking, Fast and Slow by Freeman Dyson for The New York Review of Books.

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