This post is part of an ongoing series looking at the level of conscious control humans have over their political thoughts and decisions.
Any psychologist will tell you that, despite our best efforts, there’s really no such thing as multitasking – at least not in the way we use the term.
Our brains may be parallel processors, but we can only consciously focus on one thing at a time. What we consider to be multitasking in fact entails flipping our focus back and forth from one thing to another, one task at a time.
Because of this, the vast majority of what we sense does not make it into our conscious perception. Less-than-crucial sensory inputs, ranging from the hum of your air conditioner to the background colors of the Burger King commercial on TV, go unnoticed without a conscious effort to focus our attention on them (apologies to readers who are now hearing their air conditioners). But just because we don’t turn our attention to these inputs doesn’t mean they aren’t processed. Whether you noticed or not, your brain processes the sound of your air conditioning unit and the background color of the commercial.
Manipulating that which is sensed but not perceived has yielded striking results in terms of human behavior. From flashing images on a screen for unnoticeable amounts of time (between 40 and 200 milliseconds), to varying the tone of words one is exposed to, unconscious activation of different mental themes can have profound impacts on behavior.
Malcolm Gladwell explains word-exposure priming:
Studies using word exposure have further shown that political ideologies dealing with individualism versus collectivism can be manipulated, moving self-identified capitalists towards interdependent values, and vice versa.
Evidence from on-screen priming is striking as well. Experimental participants who are instructed to stare at a screen, and discriminate “words” from “not-words,” will identify words that are subconsciously primed with a similar word more quickly than they otherwise would (the word “flower” is more quickly identified as a word when “rose” is flashed on the screen first; the same prime has no effect when identifying an unrelated word, such as “gun”). Similar experiments have shown that primes can effect our ability to associate words as “good” or “bad.” For example, it would take longer for me to identify “sunshine” as good if it were primed with a word like “cancer,” and vice versa.
But this does this have any bearing on politics? Would it have a tangible effect on behavior if political words or figures were primed with positive or negative words?
The Republican Party certainly thinks so:
Did you see it? If not, start the video again at 0:20 and look for the word “RATS.” It flashes very quickly. I grabbed a screen shot below – it took a few tries.
The RNC dismissed accusations of “subliminal advertising” in this spot as a production error and dismissed the notion that such advertising would be effective in the first place, but a laboratory replication of the ad (using “RATS” as the prime and “STAR,” the reverse, as a control) showed that the prime did significantly reduce participants’ opinion of a hypothetical presidential candidate. In short, unconscious activation of “good” and “bad” mental cues can have significant effects on our short-term political attitudes.
How far do the implications of priming research extend? Should we simply take it as a given that we are influenced by our environment in ways that we aren’t fully aware of? Is there anything we can do about it? In my next post, I’ll address the Polling Place Priming Effect, which shows how where we vote can have a tangible effect on how we vote.