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Experiments on Subconscious Influence

There have been many experiments done to test the subconscious influence of words on people. I have even reported on some (on another website) which deal with "priming." In one experiment, for example, volunteers chose a word from a list, and when the word they chose was related to old age, they walked more slowly upon leaving the laboratory. There was no conscious recognition of this effect on their part. In some experiments the old-age words were introduced in other ways, with the same general effect.

Now we find that studies of this type may have a flaw. At least there is a flaw in the assumption that it was the words which caused the slower movements. Stephane Doyen from the Université Libre de Bruxelles replicated one of the more famous of these experiments, but with one some minor changes, and found no effect from the words. According to an article in Discover Magazine;

Two other groups have since replicated the effect, but neither stuck to the original set-up. That’s what Doyen wanted to do, but with three important tweaks. First, in Bargh’s study, a researcher timed the volunteers with a stopwatch. This time, Doyen would use infrared sensors for more accurate readings. Second, Bargh recruited 60 volunteers, but Doyen recruited twice as many. Third, Doyen also recruited four experimenters who carried out the study, but didn’t know what the point of it was.

This time, the priming words had no impact on the volunteers’ walking speed. They left the test room neither more slowly nor more quickly than when they arrived. The famous result hadn’t replicated. Why?

Doyen suspected that Bargh’s research team could have unwittingly told their volunteers how they were meant to behave... Perhaps they themselves moved more slowly if they expected the volunteer to do so. Maybe they spoke more languidly, or shook hands more leisurely.

So it may not be the words, but this is still a fascinating example of subconscious influence of behavior. The subjects in the original experiments did slow down, and were not aware that they were doing so. If nothing else, this suggests we can influence people quite a bit without their awareness of what we are doing.

Doyen repeated the experiments in a few different ways, and (again from the Discover Magazine article);

When Doyen looked at the data from the infrared sensors, he found that the volunteers moved more slowly only when they were tested by experimenters who expected them to move slowly.

So we see the effect of a less-than-conscious influence here, but we also see the need to replicate experiments while controlling for many possible factors. In general it is another lesson in the necessity to challenge assumptions (in this case the assumption that it was the words which had the effect), something I always recommend for deeper thinking.

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