🦋🌪 How Unconscious Pressures Influence Your Decisions
The science of priming, magic, and influence
Before jumping into the details of this week’s newsletter, here’s a 20-second video. Watch the video before reading on, since reading on might ruin the video for you!
The trick in the video may or may not have worked for you (it worked for me the first time I ever watched it!). If it did work, I can think of at least two theories to explain why. The first is that there’s no real trick at all, but because thousands of people watch the video, many will randomly think “three of diamonds” and then spread the word about how amazing the “trick” is. Meanwhile, everyone else simply forgets about it because it was a boring video that didn’t work. But the second more interesting theory is related to priming.
In the video, the magician is priming your mind with visual concepts. He’s making diamond shapes with his hands and drawing the number three in the air in the corners of an imaginary card. All of these primes are designed to force the mental image—and therefore the mental choice—of the three of diamonds in a viewer’s mind.
🚦 What is priming?
The concept of priming has been studied in academic psychology for decades. There are many kinds of priming, but they all involve showing people snippets of information, either consciously or unconsciously, and then measuring how those snippets or “primes” change their behavior.
Some of the earliest and perhaps most reliable priming effects come from flashing a small leftward or rightward arrow on a screen before asking people to press a left or right button as fast as possible. Repeated studies over the years have shown that people respond faster when they have to press a button in the same direction as the arrow and slower when they need to press a button in the opposite direction. This happens regardless of whether people can consciously detect the initial arrow prime or not, so primes can impact behavior automatically and unconsciously.
To be clear, there are limits to what primes can do. In fact, there’s a whole field called “social priming” which has become quite controversial over the last couple of decades as many of its findings aren’t being replicated. Social priming uses slightly more complex primes than simple arrows. For example, one widely discussed controversial study suggested that unconsciously priming people with concepts related to elderly people can slow people’s walking speeds.
It’s important to work out where priming is most relevant in the real world and how strongly it can determine people’s choices. If priming only works with little arrows on a computer screen, it’s probably not much use. However, Derren Brown’s trick in the video above is a great example of priming being used to directly manipulate people’s “free choices” while they sit at home watching a TV show. So one group of researchers recently put this trick to the test.
♦️ Do people choose the three of diamonds?
In a 2020 research study, Alice Pailhès and Gustav Kuhn at Goldsmiths, University of London, replicated Derren Brown’s magic trick and tested how many people they could influence with it. There are 52 unique possibilities in a standard deck of cards, so the chance of randomly choosing the three of diamonds is only 1.92%. But do people choose the three of diamonds more often than that?
The researchers showed 90 participants the trick (without revealing the card at the end) and asked everyone to write down their chosen card. Afterwards, they asked each person a few questions:
How free and in control did you feel about your choice?
Do you know why you chose your card? If so, explain.
Did you notice any of the performer’s gestures? If so, write them down.
Here’s a simplified chart I made showing the top 15 most selected cards and how often participants chose each of them:
You can immediately see that the three of diamonds was the runaway winner, being chosen a flabbergasting 17.8% of the time; significantly more often than you’d expect from chance. The next most popular card was the three of hearts at 12-13%, and the third most popular was the three of spades at 6-7%. All remaining cards were chosen between 0-5% of the time.
The priming for the number three clearly worked well since the most popular trio of cards were all threes. The three of clubs got somewhat lost among other irrelevant cards but it was also the only suit of clubs to feature in the top 15. Perhaps some other unknown unconscious influence drove people’s minds away from choosing clubs cards overall!
To confirm that people’s choices of the three of diamonds were actually caused by the priming, the researchers ran a control condition showing some participants the same trick without the visual primes. In that condition, 0% of people chose the three of diamonds, supporting the idea that priming was the core manipulator of decisions in the experiment. In other words, it wasn’t that people were generally attracted to the number three, but rather that visual primes transformed the three of diamonds from a regular old card to the most immediate and natural choice.
Regardless of what people chose in the priming experiment, they reported feeling highly free and highly in control of their decisions. The vast majority of people who chose the three of diamonds (~80%) said they didn’t know the reason for their choice; they felt as though they merely picked a card out of thin air. Of the small number of people who chose a three and reported knowing why, less than half actually gave a reason related to the performer’s gestures. Most of them reported choosing a three for irrelevant and possibly fictitious reasons like “I always seem to count in threes”.
A large percentage of participants did report noticing some vague gesturing from the performer during the trick, but the majority made no link between the gestures and their choices. Overall, it was clear that the priming influenced people without them being aware of it.
⭐️ Takeaway tips
You’re not always in control: We spend an awful lot of time thinking about our past choices and what we could have done differently, but all of this presupposes a level of control over our lives that none of us have. Life will often throw a curveball at you and there’s no getting around it. When you accept that you’re not always in control and become more cognizant about what you can and can’t change in your life, you can learn to let go and enjoy the ride.
You can’t turn your senses off: The world is constantly firing information at your senses and it’s not always easy to predict what is and isn’t affecting your decision-making. Many of your thoughts and choices today may be entirely explained by a random signal that caught your eye, ear, or nose while strolling to a coffee shop yesterday. With so many interacting influences working on your mind, you can end up chasing your own tail if you try to over-explain events in your life. So just appreciate each sensation for what it is instead. Conscious sensations are the only real sign that you’re still living right now!
Be more intentional about the things you can change: The only practical defense against potentially harmful primes in the world—maybe those that come from predatory ads or malicious manipulators for example—is to be more intentional with your decision-making. Sometimes, you need to make an active decision to behave in accordance with your principles and priorities rather than letting inertia carry you toward unhealthier outcomes. This might sound like a contradiction against my previous points about letting go, but the ideal balance is to be intentional about the things you can improve in your life and to let go of the things you can’t change.
💡 A final quote
“Men believe themselves to be free, simply because they are conscious of their actions, and unconscious of the causes whereby those actions are determined.”
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📬 I love to hear from readers. Reach out any time with comments or questions.
👋 Until next time,
Erman Misirlisoy, PhD