Priming represents a powerful idea—that very subtle cues can shape people's unconscious minds to think and act in certain ways.
New York University psychological scientist Peter Gollwitzer believes that we do have such power, and he set out to demonstrate it in a series of experiments. He explored a particular self-regulatory tool, which he calls if-then plans. If-then plans involve anticipating particular situations, and spelling out for ourselves in advance how we will act if a particular contingency arises. It may be that embracing broad goals is not enough to trump harmful influences in the world, but if we spell our intentions out in detail—the when, where and how of an intended course of action—this might defuse the power of potentially harmful cues.
Here’s how he tested this idea in the lab. He had a group of volunteers read a fictitious scientific article that emphasized the similarity between humans and other animals. Some read a version that referred to fast animals like cheetahs and hares, while others read about slugs and tortoises. In other words, some were primed for speed and others for sluggishness, and they were afterward timed on a word classification task.
Up to this point, this is a typical priming experiment, and one would expect these volunteers to act either slowly or quickly in the word task. But in this experiment, they also got this instruction: “And if the nonword ‘avenda’ appears, then I respond especially quickly.” This was the if-then plan: It wasn’t simply the general intention of responding quickly and accurately; it was a focused plan targeting a specific cue. The idea was that having such a mental plan would counter the priming effect, and that’s precisely what happened. Volunteers responded much faster to “avenda” than to any other stimulus, regardless of whether they were primed for slowness or speed. In other words, cues did prime later actions—except when those actions were regulated by an if-then plan, in which case priming lost its potency.
So perhaps we’re not powerless, and maybe precise if-then plans are an effective self-regulatory tool. Gollwitzer wanted to bolster this conclusion in other ways, so for a second experiment he recruited volunteers to work on tedious arithmetic problems—a task that required a great deal of concentration. They all wrote down the sentence, “I will try to find as many correct solutions as possible.” So they all had the same general goal and intention. Then half of the volunteers also wrote this more specific if-then plan: “If I get distracted, then I will concentrate on the test even more.” The if-then plan differed from the general goal by focusing specifically on the contingency that they might get distracted in some way.
Wray Herbert’s book, On Second Thought, explores the automatic forces that shape our lives.