Never Leave Your Room

Re­lated to: Prim­ing and Contamination

Psy­chol­o­gists define “prim­ing” as the abil­ity of a stim­u­lus to ac­ti­vate the brain in such a way as to af­fect re­sponses to later stim­uli. If that doesn’t sound suffi­ciently om­i­nous, feel free to re-word it as “any ran­dom thing that hap­pens to you can hi­jack your judg­ment and per­son­al­ity for the next few min­utes.”

For ex­am­ple, let’s say you walk into a room and no­tice a brief­case in the cor­ner. Your brain is now the proud owner of the ac­ti­vated con­cept “brief­case”. It is “primed” to think about brief­cases, and by ex­ten­sion about offices, busi­ness, com­pe­ti­tion, and am­bi­tion. For the next few min­utes, you will shift ever so slightly to­wards per­ceiv­ing all so­cial in­ter­ac­tions as com­pet­i­tive, and to­wards be­hav­ing com­pet­i­tively your­self. Th­ese slight shifts will be large enough to be mea­sured by, for ex­am­ple, how much money you offer dur­ing the Ul­ti­ma­tum Game. If that sounds too much like some sort of weird New Age sym­pa­thetic magic to be­lieve, all I can say is Kay, Wheeler, Bargh, and Ross, 2004.1

We’ve been dis­cussing the costs and benefits of Santa Claus re­cently. Well, here’s one benefit: show Dutch chil­dren an image of St. Ni­cholas’ hat, and they’ll be more likely to share candy with oth­ers. Why? The re­searchers hy­poth­e­size that the hat ac­ti­vates the con­cept of St. Ni­cholas, and St. Ni­cholas ac­ti­vates an ideal­ized con­cept of shar­ing and giv­ing. The child is now primed to view shar­ing pos­i­tively. Of course, the same effect can be used for evil. In the same study, kids shown the Toys ‘R’ Us logo re­fused to share their pre­cious candy with any­one.

But this effect is limited to a few psych lab­o­ra­to­ries, right? It hasn’t done any­thing like, you know, de­ter­mine the out­come of a bunch of ma­jor elec­tions?

I am aware of two good stud­ies on the effect of prim­ing in poli­tics. In the first, sub­jects were sub­limi­nally2 primed with ei­ther alphanu­meric com­bi­na­tions that re­called the 9/​11 WTC at­tacks (ie “911” or “WTC”), or ran­dom alphanu­meric com­bi­na­tions. Then they were asked to rate the Bush ad­minis­tra­tion’s poli­cies. Those who saw the ran­dom strings rated Bush at an un­en­thu­si­as­tic 42% (2.1/​5). Those who were primed to be think­ing about the War on Ter­ror gave him an as­tound­ing 75% (3.75/​5). This dra­matic a change, even though none of them could con­sciously re­call see­ing ter­ror­ism-re­lated stim­uli.

In the sec­ond study, sci­en­tists an­a­lyzed data from the 2000 elec­tion in Ari­zona, and found that pol­ling lo­ca­tion had a mod­er­ate effect on vot­ing re­sults. That is, peo­ple who voted in a school were more likely to sup­port ed­u­ca­tion-friendly poli­cies, peo­ple who voted in a church were more likely to sup­port so­cially con­ser­va­tive poli­cies, et cetera. The effect seems to have shifted re­sults by about three per­centage points. Think about all the elec­tions that were won or lost by less than three per­cent...

Ob­jec­tion: cor­re­la­tion is not cau­sa­tion! Reli­gious peo­ple prob­a­bly live closer to churches, and are more likely to know where their lo­cal church is, and so on. So the sci­en­tists performed an im­pres­sive bat­tery of re­gres­sion analy­ses and ad­just­ments on their data. Same re­sponse.

Ob­jec­tion: maybe their ad­just­ments weren’t good enough! The same sci­en­tists then called vot­ers into their lab­o­ra­tory, showed them pic­tures of build­ings, and asked them to cast a mock vote on the ed­u­ca­tion ini­ti­a­tives. Vot­ers who saw pic­tures of schools were more likely to vote yes on the pro-ed­u­ca­tion ini­ti­a­tives than vot­ers who saw con­trol build­ings.

What tech­niques do these stud­ies sug­gest for ra­tio­nal­ists? I’m tempted to say the op­ti­mal tech­nique is to never leave your room, but there are still a few less ex­treme things you can do. First, avoid ex­po­sure to any salient stim­uli in the few min­utes be­fore mak­ing an im­por­tant de­ci­sion. Every­one knows about the 9-11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks, but the War on Ter­ror only hi­jacked the de­ci­sion-mak­ing pro­cess when the sub­jects were ex­posed to the re­lated stim­uli di­rectly be­fore perform­ing the rat­ing task3.

Se­cond, try to make de­ci­sions in a neu­tral en­vi­ron­ment and then stick to them. The eas­iest way to avoid hav­ing your vote hi­jacked by the lo­ca­tion of your pol­ling place is to de­cide how to vote while you’re at home, and then stick to that de­ci­sion un­less you have some amaz­ing rev­e­la­tion on your way to the vot­ing booth. In­stead of never leav­ing your room, you can make de­ci­sions in your room and then carry them out later in the stim­u­lus-laden world.

I can’t help but think of the long tra­di­tion of mas­ter ra­tio­nal­ists “blank­ing their mind” to make an im­por­tant de­ci­sion. Jeffreys­sai’s brain “care­fully put in idle” as he de­scends to a bare white room to stage his crisis of faith. Anasûrim­bor Kel­lhus with­draw­ing into him­self and en­ter­ing a prob­a­bil­ity trance be­fore he finds the Short­est Path. Your grand­mother tel­ling you to “sleep on it” be­fore you make an im­por­tant life choice.

Whether or not you try any­thing as for­mal as that, wait­ing a few min­utes in a stim­u­lus-free en­vi­ron­ment be­fore a big de­ci­sion might be a good idea.


1: I bet that sym­pa­thetic magic prob­a­bly does have strong placebo-type effects for ex­actly these rea­sons, though.

2: Prim­ing is one of the phe­nom­ena be­hind all the hype about sub­limi­nal ad­ver­tis­ing and other sub­limi­nal effects. The bad news is that it’s real: a pic­ture of pop­corn flashed sub­limi­nally on a movie screen can make you think of pop­corn. The good news is that it’s not par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous: your thoughts of pop­corn aren’t any stronger or any differ­ent than they’d be if you just saw a nor­mal pic­ture of pop­corn.

3: The ob­vi­ous ob­jec­tion is that if you’re eval­u­at­ing Ge­orge Bush, it would be very strange if you didn’t think of the 9-11 ter­ror at­tacks your­self in the course of the eval­u­a­tion. I haven’t seen any re­search ad­dress­ing this pos­si­bil­ity, but maybe hear­ing an ex­ter­nal refer­ence to it out­side the con­text of your own thought pro­cesses is a stronger ac­ti­va­tion than the one you would get by com­ing up with the idea your­self.