Having mentioned priming in yesterday’s blog, I’ve been thinking about it… so I might as well write about it today.
What is priming?
The Wikipedia definition of it works for me:
… where an early stimulus influences response to a later stimulus. For example, when a person reads a list of words including the word table, and is later asked to complete a word starting with tab, the probability that subject answers table is higher than for non-primed people.
Of course it isn’t as simple as the given example. Priming effects can be quite complex and interesting… and I believe they form one of the underpinnings for neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).
Bargh et al’s experiment
Three groups of subjects were given the ‘scrambled sentence’ test – they were presented with six sets of five words (e.g. ‘he it hides finds instantly’) and asked to make as many four-word sentences from each five word set as they could, as quickly as possible.
The words presented differed slightly for each group. One group had 15 rude words included (such as ‘aggressively’, ‘intrude’, ‘brazen’, ‘impolitely’). For another group, 15 polite words were substituted for the rude words, and for the final control group neutral words were substituted. The subjects were not aware of these differences, and thought the five-minute scrambled sentence test was the point of the experiment.
When each of the 34 subjects came out of the room to report that they’d finished the test, the experimenter was engaged in conversation, and ignored the subject for ten minutes.
Only just over 15% of those who’d been primed with polite words interrupted within 10 minutes, while of those who’d been using rude words, more than 60% interrupted in that time.
Subjects who did interrupt also did so faster if they’d been in the ‘impolite’ group – they took an average of 5.5 minutes to intrude, whereas even when you discounted the 85% of the politely primed group who didn’t interrupt at all, subjects from that group took over 9 minutes to interrupt on average.
Despite the small sample size, the results were statistically significant.
[Bargh JA, Chen M, Burrows L. (1996) Automaticity of social behavior: direct effects of trait construct and stereotype-activation on action. J Pers Soc Psychol. 71(2):230–244.]
This experiment effectively demonstrates how significant the effect of even a short period of priming can have on subsequent behaviour.
Derren Brown is one of the most well-known exponents of NLP. I have to admit I find him creepy, but the tricks he can pull are certainly very clever. I saw him on TV once, running rings round Simon Pegg. He’d bought Simon a gift, and had it wrapped up ready to give to him, but Simon would only get the gift (a BMX bike) if he asked for it correctly by name. Derren burbled for a while, doubtless working lots of priming in that I didn’t notice, but I did spot it when he said, ‘you could ask for anything you like, a BM, XBox, whatever.’ Still and all, I was impressed when Mr Pegg duly asked for and received his BMX bike.
I know it’s fiction, but there’s a fabulous bit in Artemis Fowl and the Lost Colony (Eoin Colfer) where Artemis allows the baddy to pick a place to meet, then primes him to pick Taipei 101 in Taiwan with the following:
Now why don’t you name your preferred location. I’ll be wearing a burgundy tie. Pay attention to that. There are a hundred and one ways this could go wrong. If it does, the police could tie one of us up for a long time.
And finally, we’ve all subjected family and/or friends to discussions of waterfalls and dripping taps when they’re desperate for the loo… which is (in more ways than one) a crude form of priming.
The Velten Mood Induction Procedure
This is an explicit use of priming to affect mood. Basically, Velten demonstrated that asking subjects to read, silently then aloud, a series of 60 increasingly elative (e.g. ‘I feel happy’) or depressive statements (e.g. ‘I am worthless’) would tend to induce elated or depressed moods respectively.
Subsequent research has shown that the effects can be achieved with silent reading alone, and sometimes with as few as 12 statements. However, the effects aren’t observed in all subjects, and tend to last only around ten minutes (although they have been seen to last for over half an hour).
[Velten, E. (1968) A laboratory task for the induction of mood states. Behaviour Research and Therapy 6;473-482.]
How is this useful for writers?
One obvious way for writers to make use of the priming effect is to carefully choose metaphors and adjectives to induce a particular mood or expectation in the reader. I’ve started to play with this a bit. One story I wrote recently used grayscale descriptions of colours and stark black and white metaphors, apart from the scarf worn by the central character, which was blood-red. I don’t know if it worked, but it was fun to do, and it all tied in nicely with the ending, which involved someone’s throat being cut. I haven’t tried explicitly manipulating the reader’s mood, but it must be a reasonable assumption that it is possible.
I guess another way to use the VMIP is to raise mood and self-confidence prior to starting to write. Again, I haven’t tried this myself, but it’s something I’m holding in reserve for when things start to get me down.
I’m pretty sure I’ve only just scratched the surface of the possibilities…
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