Do you ever behave in ways you can’t explain rationally? Those behaviors might be due to the power of subliminal priming.
What is priming? Subliminal priming is when your unconscious associations with one thing affect your unconscious reaction to something else. In other words, it’s a way of influencing the unconscious mind. Therefore, subliminal priming can be extremely powerful. Subliminal priming can work positively, negatively, or neutrally on the unconscious mind.
Learn how to use subliminal priming to positively address your implicit biases.
Examples of Subliminal Priming
The statistics showing how much our unconscious attitudes influence our actions are grim, as we’ll see at the end of this article. We can’t choose our unconscious attitudes. But does this mean we can’t change them?
The technique of subliminal priming gives us hope. Subliminal priming demonstrates that our unconscious minds are extremely suggestible. This makes the unconscious vulnerable to negative suggestions, but it also makes it available for positive suggestions. Subliminal priming sheds light on one way to influence otherwise inaccessible unconscious processes.
Subliminal priming happens when your associations with one thing affect your reaction to something else. This makes more sense in context, so let’s look at some priming experiments that demonstrate how easily swayed the unconscious mind is.
(Shortform note: The concept of priming is controversial, since many of the studies have failed to replicate the original findings, suggesting the studies were either cherry-picked to yield the best results or, at worst, fabricated. At best, priming is a more complex phenomenon than was originally thought.)
Subliminal Priming Experiment #1
This subliminal priming experiment involved what’s called a “scrambled-sentence test.” It works like this: As quickly as possible, you read a set of five words and use four of them to make a grammatically correct sentence.
- Example: from are Florida oranges temperature
- A grammatical sentence might read: Oranges are from Florida.
- Example: shoes give replace old the
- A grammatical sentence might read: Replace the old shoes.
The experimenters divided undergraduates into two groups:
- Group A’s sentences were sprinkled with “rude” words like “aggressively,” “bold,” “disturb,” and “infringe.”
- Group B’s sentences were sprinkled with “polite” words like “respect,” “appreciate,” “patiently,” and “yield.”
There were only enough of these themed words to trigger the unconscious mind. The students didn’t consciously pick up on the pattern. This is subliminal priming.
When they were finished unscrambling the sentences, the students were instructed to walk down the hall and talk to the researcher in charge of the experiment. But when the student got there, a confederate was blocking the doorway to the researcher’s office and was deep in conversation with the researcher. The experimenters wanted to know how long the students would wait before interrupting the conversation.
- Group A, primed with “rude” words, interrupted after an average of 5 minutes.
- 82% of students in Group B, primed with “polite” words, never interrupted at all. (The committee that approved the experiment stipulated, presumably for ethical reasons, that the researchers couldn’t keep the students waiting for longer than 10 minutes.)
This experiment implies that subtle environmental cues can make us ruder or more polite in certain situations. This is subliminal priming at work.
Subliminal Priming Experiment #2
In another subliminal priming experiment, Dutch researchers asked students to answer 42 demanding Trivial Pursuit questions. They divided the students into two groups:
- They instructed Group A to think and write about what it would mean to be a professor for 5 minutes, before answering the questions.
- They instructed Group B to think and write about what it would mean to be a soccer hooligan for 5 minutes, before answering the questions.
- Group A answered 55.6% of the questions correctly.
- Group B answered 42.6% of the questions correctly.
These percentages can mean the difference between passing and failing a test. The students in Group A weren’t smarter than those in Group B, and they didn’t know more. But associating with professors made them feel smarter, even if they didn’t realize it was happening. Group A had positive results from subliminal priming. The results of Group B demonstrate how subliminal priming can be used negatively.
Subliminal Priming Experiment #3
In another subliminal priming experiment, psychologists asked Black college students to take a test with 20 questions from the GRE. They divided the students into two groups:
- Group A had to identify his or her race in a pre-test question.
- Group B did not have to identify his or her race.
Students who had to identify their race got half as many questions right as the group that didn’t answer a pre-test question about race.
This is a big deal. Scores on standardized tests like the GRE can make the difference between attending your first-choice school and not going to graduate school at all.
One reason white students may do better on these kinds of tests is that they are primed with the idea of “smart.” Black students may be subconsciously reminded of negative stereotypes when they have to identify their race. They also may feel pressure to represent their race well on the test, increasing testing anxiety. Even when we’re not the subject of an experiment, subliminal priming is at work on all of us, every day. It can lead to implicit bias.
These experiments show us that subliminal priming can have devastating effects on our unconscious attitudes and, consequently, our lives. But they also show us a path forward. If we can negatively influence our hidden attitudes, we can also positively influence them.
Use Subliminal Priming to Fight Bias
Many psychologists use the Implicit Association Test (IAT) as a tool in their attempts to understand how unconscious associations affect our beliefs and behavior. (You can find the IAT online at www.implicit.harvard.edu if you’re interested in learning more about your own unconscious associations.)
Statistics from the administration of the IAT demonstrate that, regardless of our stated beliefs, most of us pair the concept of “male” with the concept of “career,” and pair “female” with “family.” When the IAT jumbles them, our reaction times are slower. They also indicate that, regardless of their stated beliefs, more than 80% of IAT-takers have “pro-white associations.” In other words, it takes slightly longer for most people to put words like “glorious” and “wonderful” in the “African American” category than to put words like “hurt” and “evil” in the same category.
If these results are the consequences of subliminal priming, we might also be able to use subliminal priming to change them.
Change Your Unconscious Biases with Subliminal Priming
Unconscious discrimination is harder to see, and therefore harder to rectify, than blatant discrimination. How do you fix something that happens below the level of conscious thought?
1. Use priming to your advantage.
For example, looking at pictures of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, or Colin Powell before taking the IAT changed people’s reaction times. They strengthened their association between “African American” and “good.”
2. Change your experiences
Your unconscious attitudes are based on your environment and accumulation of prior experiences. To change your unconscious attitudes, you need to change your environment and experiences.
When you become aware of an implicit association that’s discriminatory—perhaps you take the race section of the IAT and you’re one of the 80% who have a white preference—alter the association by spending time with people who counter your implicit biases. Read books, watch movies, and become familiar and comfortable with cultures that your unconscious mind discriminates against. You’re training your unconscious mind to change its opinion.
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