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Farming and Cousin Joe
I have a cousin, my Cousin Joe, who is a farmer. He owns a farm. A big farm. He is very good at what he does. He has skills I can only aspire to, skills with mechanical vehicles, with livestock, crop rotation and soil preparation. Things I can't begin to understand, but would expect a farmer to know.

When we were kids, I'd spend the night, or a whole weekend, or even a week, on the farm with Cousin Joe. We'd build big mazes out of bales of hay, push mounds of earth into ramps for dirt bikes, and eat the freshest corn and eggs and beef that have probably ever passed my lips.

Yet, simple exposure to Joe's farm (it was his father's before him) did not convey to me any expertise about farming possessed by my Cousin Joe. I continue to be jealous of him, in some ways, to this very day.

Quick, think of a word that ends with the letters "ble." The first word ending in "ble" that comes to mind. Now, scroll down to the poll, answer the question there, and then--and only then--rejoin the lecture after the fold.

As always, the bagels are on the house, please don't drink all the coffee until everyone has gotten some, and if you're the last one out, please flip off the lights.

Thanks to the dean for unlocking the lecture hall, and to fellow faculty members for some fantastic guest lectures as of late. {{{HHHUUGGGSSSSSS}}} to all in attendance, and to Kula, wherever you may be, we wish you well.

Let's begin.

Definition(s)

Priming is the psychological process in which one stimulus influences an organism's response to a future stimulus. Many priming researchers would also insist on pointing out that this influence is especially emotion-rich and can play a direct role in decision making and construction of meaning(assuming the organism is capable of making meaning and decisions, that is). [my paraphrased definition consolidated from several sources]

Pretty simple.

A classic example is that I tell you a story (1st stimulus) about a farmer I admire. The 2nd stimulus is the unexpected prompt for a "ble" word. If you chose "able" or "capable" in the poll, then I have arguably successfully primed you to respond to my question with the exact word I wanted you to. I could tell a different story and intentionally produce a predictably higher hit rate on any other commonly occurring -ble word of my choice (nibble, flexible, etc...)

If this works as well here as it has at school over the past two weeks (thank you to teachers who allow Blogistan faculty to interrupt their classes for two minute stories about farmers in exchange for guest lectures on priming!), we should be looking at about an 85% to 90% response rate of "able," with a few "capables." Given the poll nature of a poll, rather than an open-ended "write down the first ble word that comes to mind" we may get some variation from that rate, but it will be really cool if we can scroll down later and see a long line by "able" and not much by any of the others, (or alternatives in comments).

For those naysayers and grumblegrumps who are already thinking, "but I would have chosen "able" anyway, because it was first in the list, or started with A, or was the shortest option, or whatever, it doesn't even matter!" Well, good for you for being skeptical, it's an important habit of mind.

Here's some more proof...

A visual example
Some of you may be familiar with Darren Brown's work in the UK. He's an entertainer but one who expertly uses priming and some other psycho-stuff in exploiting some of the many naturally occurring tweaks in the human mind. Embedding is disallowed, but this link will challenge your understanding of priming, and it is quite short:
This one really kicks in at 0:45, where if you listen closely, you can clearly hear the subliminal priming words "uplifting arm," "pay attention," "handily," "come right on up," and "reach up and grab."

Be very careful, though, once you start surfing the Brown videos, we may have to send the Poytechnic Security out to find you. You can get lost in the richness of his youtube posts. They are fascinating (especially the bicycle birthday gift one, a little long but very rewarding example of expert priming).

Some research examples
Every year, I have students walk down a hallway. They love this. We measure the time it takes them and then send them back, telling them to walk the same pace the second time as they did the first time. However, some of them must unscramble sentences like these three before we let them walk back. One word is extra and must be eliminated for the remaining words to form a grammatically correct sentence:

  1. shoes  give  replace  the  old
  1. sky the seamless gray is
  1. sunlight makes temperatures wrinkle raisins

There is nothing in the exercise that explicitly triggers thoughts of being old. But "old," "replace," "gray," and "wrinkle" are all associated with being old, and that’s all it takes. Once those associations are primed, each of these students exhibits that priming by walking back more slowly to the start line (2nd stimulus) than they walked to me, even though I explicitly instruct them to walk back at the same pace. In eight years, I’ve never had a single student fail to slow their pace on the walk back.

In another version, Bargh (one of priming’s primary researchers) exposed students to a set of words categorized as "rudeness" (e.g. obnoxious), "politeness" (respect, considerate), or "neither" (randomized control words) under the guise of participating in a "language research" project. Each subject was then sent to another room to receive directions on what do to next. They discovered two conspirators engaged in a conversation. 67% of those exposed to rudeness interrupted the conversation. 38% in the control group interrupted. Ready for this? Only 16% of the "politeness" group interrupted the researchers to inquire as to their next task.

Polling and Politics
In survey research, or polling, there is something called the wording effect. The way an item is worded can influence the results it produces. As has been discussed cogently in previous Morning Features, polling companies are sometimes accused of doing this intentionally in order to draw publicity to themselves and provide cover for a news cycle strategy using the poll results to support predetermined talking points. Two related examples:

  1. Time Magazine, 4-5-1993. "Hillary Clinton" polled at a 56.8% approval rating. "Hillary Rodham Clinton" polled a 49.4% approval rating. Something about the word Rodham, or a three name appellation in general, primed a less approving response to that item in a significant section of the voting public. Significant, at least, if you're managing Hillary's primary campaign. How long has it been since we've heard "Hillary Rodham Clinton," anyway? Since about May of 1993, I'd bet.
  1. In 1987 an open-ended poll item asked people to name the "most important problem facing the country today." 1% responded with "education." When reworded to:

Which of the following do you think is the most important problem facing this country today--the energy shortage, the quality of public schools, legalized abortion, or pollution, or if you prefer you may name a different problem as most important [sic].

32% wrote in "education." Clearly something about that 2nd version primed more people to go with education than the 1st version did.

When politicians and pundits say, "the Democrat Party" instead of "the Democratic Party," we can safely assume it is intentional. Why do they do this? They do this because it primes associations of disdain and dismissal, of disrespect in their allies, and anger and frustration in their opponents. It is classic playground bully stuff employed by grown men and women who never left the playground.

The Goposaurs, however, are not the only ones who engage in this behavior. When we have the chance to say "Tea Parties" and instead say "Teabagging," or "Tebaggers," or as a teacher friend of mine likes to say, "Teagaggers," we are intentionally priming the playground pump ourselves. We just don't do it as well as they do.

Terror Management Theory
I discovered this idea in Drew Westen's excellent and most worthy tome, "The Political Brain." In a perfect world you would stop reading this and go read that. It is dynamite stuff. Game changing stuff.

In it, he details how a particular priming scenario has been intentionally manipulated for years to create the culture of division we've heard so much about.

When people are primed with a 1st stimulus that reminds them they are mortal, that they will die some day, they will become more politically conservative. That's the Terror Management Theory (TMT). [my paraphrased definition]

Beck's War Room doomsday broadcast, Charlton Heston shouting "from my cold dead hands" at NRA rallies (yeah, I know, the old ones--now it's Magnum P.I.), and George Bush raising the terror alert levels on election days are all examples of priming to manipulate an audience into more conservative positions and long term commitments.

A little proof from Westen's book(and then we're done, and I'll open the floor to questions and comments):

  1. A group of Iranian students was asked to describe "extreme dental pain" and another group was asked to describe what they "think will happen to you as you physically die." The dental group, when presented with an argument by a suicide bomber justifying terrorism and one by a similar person claiming that life is to precious to destroy for political purposes, expressed disinterest in the pro-martyrdom statement. Those primed to think about their own deaths, however, approved of the pro-martyrdom statement and several expressed interest in joining the cause. None of the "dental" students expressed interest.
  1. College students in New England were asked who they intended to vote for, Kerry or Bush. As predicted by baseline surveys, about 4 to 1 the control group broke for Kerry. After being primed to consider their own demise the experimental group went for Bush 2 to 1. That's a mighty significant swing.
  1. During the Red Scare and McCarthy era, "religious books were the bestsellers and conservatives successfully added 'under God' to the Pledge of Allegiance" (p. 367). Granted, this one's not so scientific, but it fits the argument, does it not?

What's Up Farmer Joe?
People primed to consider their own mortality do not become defensively more liberal. As seen above, we become defensively more conservative. If we dwelled on our own deaths, which we would do all the time if not distracted from the thought, we would shut down. There would be no reason to live.

So, we create sports teams, and American Idols to vote for, and political candidates to vote for, and political parties to support them. And political ideologies to justify them. Just about anything that draws us together into social groups and distracts us from thinking about death.

When we discover that someone else has a different "immortality project" than ours to distract themselves from conscious contemplation of their death, we begin to question our own team affiliation. If someone else has a different way of dealing with this, then our own may be incomplete, flawed. So the way back to mental comfort is not to reconcile theirs with ours, but to destroy theirs, making our own whole, complete, and flawless once again.

Any Ohio State or Michigan fan will immediately understand this. Or, Limbaugh, Rove, Begala, or Carville, for that matter.

Hope is the Antibody
Whenever you realize a political or religious (or any other) leader is priming your for a fear response, it may be because they have their own best interests in mind rather than yours.

Roosevelt said, "There is nothing to fear but fear itself." He steered us away from fear, priming us for shared commitment to sacrifice, self-efficacy, bravery, and courage in the face of an ambiguous enemy. Watch an Obama speech or presser and fear is not the emotional response being primed. Confidence is. Hope is.

The Bushies gave us the Superdome and pet food that killed our pets. The "Axis of Evil" and "the gays are coming to destroy your marriage! Quick! Pass a constitutional amendment to stop them!" They wanted us to be afraid. They needed us to be afraid. People who are afraid are more ok with torture in their own defense than those who are not.

Now, for six months or so, the "BE AFRAID!" priming routine hasn't been working so well. So, we get more and more outrageous claims of secession, teabaggery, socialism (be afraid!), fascism (be afraid!), etc..., etc..., and so on.

The key is to be not afraid. To push back against calls for fear and demonization. To spread hope and confidence, courage and community.

Even towards those on the other team. Prime them for more liberal thinking, and, over time, we'll get more of what we want and less of what they want.

Yes We Can.

Yes, we are able.

Originally posted to elropsych on Wed May 06, 2009 at 03:15 AM PDT.

Poll

If your word is below, please select it. If it is not, please mention it in a comment. Thank you for polling, you may now return to your regularly scheduled diary. :-)

31%21 votes
11%8 votes
1%1 votes
0%0 votes
0%0 votes
0%0 votes
0%0 votes
2%2 votes
1%1 votes
0%0 votes
1%1 votes
0%0 votes
0%0 votes
1%1 votes
47%32 votes

| 67 votes | Vote | Results

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