Today, we're going to explore how our environment can shape our decisions without us ever even realizing it, how a change of music can dramatically shift your buying preferences, how the smells around you can change your behavior, and how this all operates at a subconscious level beyond your conscious experience. This episode is going to focus on drilling down and understanding a specific cognitive bias, a mental model to help you start building the mental toolkit that we talked about in previous interviews with Shane Paris and with Michael Mauboussin. In both of those episodes, both of them are fantastic thinkers, experts in human decision making, and they both recommended building a toolkit of mental models so that we can better understand reality.
This episode is one of those tools that you're going to put in your toolkit. This episode focuses on the specific cognitive bias known as priming or the Priming Effect. Along with framing and anchoring, which we're going to cover in upcoming episodes of the podcast, priming is a strong, subconscious tendency where your environment can shape your decisions and shape your behavior without you ever being conscious of it happening. Priming is a phenomenon that can have a major impact on our actions, on the way that we perceive the world, on the things that we do, but many times, one of the things that people don't realize about priming is that it often takes place at a completely subconscious level, and I wanted to share a quote from Daniel Kahneman in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, which I've recommended before in the podcast. Thinking Fast and Slow is a phenomenal book, very, very dense, very, very information-rich. If you're new to this topic, I would not recommend starting with Thinking Fast and Slow. I would say start with Influence by Robert Cialdini. Start with even some of our episodes. The entire Weapons of Influence series that we've done on the Science of Success is a great place to dig in. But I wanted to share this quote with you from Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow about priming.
Quote: "Primed ideas have some ability to prime other ideas, like ripples on a pond. Activation spreads through a small part of the vast network of associated ideas. The mapping of these ripples is now one of the most exciting pursuits in psychological research. Another major advance in our understanding of memory was the discovery that priming is not restricted to concepts and words. You cannot know this from conscious experience, of course, but you must accept the alien idea that your actions and your emotions can be primed by events of which you are not even aware." End quote. That last part is essential; the understanding that events of which you are consciously not even aware of can prime and change your behavior. It's one of the ways that your environment, the things around you that you can't control or that you don't control, can transform or shape or change your behavior, and we're going to look at a few different examples of that.
The first example is something that's known as the Florida Effect. This is a classic experimental psychology study. There's a psychologist named John Bargh, and they conducted an experiment at New York University. They took a group of 18- to 22-year-olds and they had them assemble four-word sentences from a set of five words. They split the students into two separate groups. One group was given neutral words -- just random words. You know, table, apple. Things that had no association exactly with what they were testing for. The other half of the group received words that were associated with the elderly. Words such as Florida, forgetful, bald, gray, wrinkle, et cetera. The key point is that at no point was the word "old" or the words "elderly" actually mentioned in this word scramble. What they did after that, they had the students finish conducting this exercise and then they had them walk down a hallway to another room, and this is actually where the experiment really took place. The students that had been given words that were indirectly associated with old age walked down the hallway 13% slower than the students who had been given neutral words. In the next room, they asked the students if they had noticed a common theme about the words. None of the respondents said that there was any commonality, anything connecting the words. So, they were consciously unaware of the impact of the words. Their subconscious picked up on the fact that these words were associated with the elderly. And, again, going back to the quote from Kahneman a moment ago, it's like ripples in a pond. The fact that these words like "Florida" or "wrinkle" were associated with old age -- what else is associated with old age? Walking slowly, moving slowly. At a completely subconscious level, these students walked 13% slower than their comparison group, simply because they had subconsciously been primed that words related to the elderly--again, the word "slow" was not used, the word "old", the word "elderly", those were not used; they were things like "Florida"--slowed their walking speed through an indirect association of something they were never conscious of.
The key thing that you want to understand and take away from the Florida Effect study is that they were consciously unaware, and that the thing that they were primed to do, to walk more slowly, was an indirect association of something that was never mentioned. So, again, priming effects can have a number of chain reactions, ideas connecting to other ideas like ripples in a pond, that can impact and change your behavior in a way which you're never conscious of.
Another example of the Priming Effect is in school voting patterns. In Arizona in the year 2000, they looked at a number of different propositions to increase school funding. What they found was that when they had the polling station located inside of a school, the voters were substantially more likely to vote in favor of the proposition increasing school funding. The funny thing about that: the effect of just locating the polling station inside of a school was greater than the differential between average voters and parents. So, the Priming Effect of just changing the surroundings of where people are voting, changing their environment, had a bigger influence on voters than whether or not they were parents in desire to vote in favor of a proposition -- increasing school funding.
Another great example is a study about music and music's subconscious influence on you. A 2007 study published in the journal Nature examined the impact of music on people's purchasing choices. Specifically, they set up an experiment in a wine store. They put bottles of French wine and bottles of German wine next to each other on a shelf. Over the next two weeks, they then alternated playing French music and German music. What they found in their experiment was that when French music was playing, French wines represented 77% of sales. When German music was playing, German wine represented 73% of sales. Now, that finding alone is pretty fascinating: the notion that just by playing a certain kind of music you can have that dramatic of a shift in consumer preference, that dramatic of an impact on people's buying behaviors. But the most fascinating finding of the music study was actually when asked about their purchase choices, what do you think people said? What do you think the customers said when they asked them, after they had purchased, "Did the music have an impact on your purchase decision?" 86% of people denied that the music had any influence over their purchase decision. 86%. Let that sink in for a second. Just like the Florida Effect, these priming effects take place at a subconscious level. Many of the people may not have even noticed what music was playing, but it clearly had a powerful impact. When French music was playing, 77% of the sales were French wine. When German music was playing, 73% of the sales were German wine. And yet when they were asked, 86% of people said that the music had no influence on their purchasing decisions.
The real takeaway from this: The environment can prime you to make certain decisions, can change the behavior of your body at a subconscious level, and, in almost every instance, you're totally unaware of it. We simply don't realize that it's happening. And the reason that it's so hard to understand this, the reason it's so hard to see these priming effects is because they take place at a subconscious level. It's not something that's part of our conscious experience. It's something that we don't see and understand every day. Our conscious experience is one of often the illusion of control, the illusion that we're making logical, rational choices, that the reason we do things is based in thoughtful decision-making, that we have control over our environment. The reality is that, oftentimes, our subconscious makes a decision that we're never consciously aware of, and we create justifications or reasons why we made that decision, or we're not even aware of it. In the example of the Florida Effect, the students, the participants, were not even conscious of the fact that they had been walking more slowly, and they were not even conscious of the fact that the words were associated with the elderly to begin with.
Priming effects can also take place or be triggered by a number of different phenomenon. Priming can be triggered by music, by smell, by sight, by words, by images. There's another experiment conducted in 2005, published in the journal Psychological Science, that explored the impact of smell and how smells can create priming effects. They exposed people to the scent of an all-purpose cleaner and had them eat a crumbly biscuit. What they discovered was that participants who had been exposed to the scent of the all-purpose cleaner were substantially less messy. The people who had been exposed to the all-purpose cleaner kept their area neater, tidied up more, and generally made less of a mess. Again, they were never consciously aware that they had even been exposed to this smell. It's something that subconsciously changed and impacted their behavior.
There are lots of influences throughout your life, things in your environment, things that happen to you, around you -- music, smells, images that impact your behavior, impact your thinking, impact your thoughts at a subconscious level. I wanted to share another quote from Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking Fast and Slow that sums this up very nicely.
Quote: "The results are not made up, nor are they statistical flukes. You have no choice but to accept that the major conclusions of these studies are true. More important, you must accept that they are true about you. You do not believe that these results apply to you because they correspond to nothing in your subjective experience, but your subjective experience consists largely of the story that your System 2 tells itself about what's going on. Priming phenomenon arise in System 1 and you have no conscious access to them." End quote.
And Kahneman uses some terminology there. He uses the phrase "System 1" and "System 2". That's a concept that he talks about and discusses throughout Thinking Fast and Slow. For the purposes of understanding this, essentially, System 1 is your subconscious processing power. It's the automatic subconscious portion of the mind that does things like read words, process images, hear sounds, make conclusions. System 2 is your conscious effort, that deliberate focus on something. System 2 is what you use when you want to do long division. System 2 is what you use when you're planning and thinking deeply. And he dives very deep into that topic in his book, and that's a subject in a rabbit hole for a future episode of the podcast. But, just putting that quote into context, the crazy part about priming effects is that you never experience them consciously. You don't have any memory or any examples of how priming has impacted your behavior, because it takes place at a subconscious level. But, as Kahneman notes, this impacts you. It impacts your behavior. It changes your decisions. It's cognitive bias that you have to be aware of and you have to understand, because once you understand it, you can start to leverage it and use it to shape your behavior in positive ways. You can start to combat it and start to be aware of it. Remember: Awareness is the first step to uncovering and understanding a lot of these cognitive biases.
And we've actually talked about the Priming Effect in previous episodes of the podcast. When we interviewed Scott Halford, the author of Activate Your Brain, he and Josh Davis, the author of Two Awesome Hours, in both of those podcast episodes we talked about ways to harness priming to your benefit. We talk about and dig into how you can leverage the priming effect, the power of music, the power of your environment, to become more productive, to become more creative, to become more effective, to accomplish whatever it is that you want to accomplish. So, it's very possible to harness the Priming Effect to your benefit, but you have to be aware of it first. You have to understand its influences. Both of those episodes are great episodes to go back to and listen to now that you're aware of priming, if you want to think about and understand ways to positively use the Priming Effect to change your behavior for the better.
On the flipside, being aware of the Priming Effect helps you combat your environment priming you, changing your behavior, changing your beliefs and actions without your conscious input and awareness. And, if you want to be more aware of priming effects, another amazing tool for doing that is meditation, which we've also talked about in a previous episode and we share a great framework for meditation that's simple and easy and you can implement tomorrow in 15 minutes.
That concludes our discussion of the Priming Effect. It's something that operates at a completely subconscious level, that often we're not aware of, but can have substantial impacts on our lives. It can change our behavior; it can change the way we think, feel, and act in the world; and it's something that you need to be aware of. It's one of those cognitive biases that you need to have on your list. It's one of those mental models--remember, we talked about that--that you want to have in your toolkit. In the episodes with Shane Parish and Michael Mauboussin, previous episodes of the podcast, both of them are phenomenal thinkers about how to make better decisions, and they both harped on the concept of building a toolbox of mental models so that you can more effectively understand reality. Both of those episodes are great if you haven't listened to them, and this episode is all about one of those specific tools: the Priming Effect, how to understand it, how to leverage it to your benefit, and how to be aware of it so that it doesn't trip you up and cause you to make bad decisions.