“The main moral of priming research is that our thoughts and our behavior are influenced, much more than we know or want, by the environment of the moment. Many people find the priming results unbelievable, because they do not correspond to subjective experience. Many others find the results upsetting, because they threaten the subjective sense of agency and autonomy.”
Daniel Kahneman includes the above quote in his book Thinking Fast and Slow when recapping his chapter about anchoring effects. The quote highlights the surprising and conflicting reality of research on priming and anchoring effects. The research shows that our minds are not always honest with us, or at least are not capable of consciously recognizing everything taking place within them. Seemingly meaningless cues in our environment can influence a great deal of what takes place within our brains. We can become more defensive, likely to donate more to charity, and more prone to think certain thoughts by symbols, ideas, and concepts present in our environment.
We all accept that when we are hungry, when our allergies are overwhelming, and when we are frustrated from being cut-off on the freeway that our behaviors will be changed. We know these situations will make us less patient, more likely to glare at someone who didn’t mean to offend us, and more likely to grab a donut for breakfast because we are not in the mood for flavor-lacking oatmeal. But somehow, even though we know external events are influencing our internal thinking and decision-making, this still seems to be in our conscious control in one way or another. A hearty breakfast, a few allergy pills, and a few deep breaths to calm us down are all we need to get back to normal and be in control of our minds and behavior.
It is harder to accept that our minds, moods, generosity, behavior towards others, and stated beliefs could be impacted just as easily by factors that we don’t even notice. We see some type of split between being short with someone because we are hungry, and being short with someone because an advertisement on our way to work primed us to be more selfish. We don’t believe that we will donate more to charity when the charity asks for a $500 dollar donation rather than a $50 dollar donation. In each of these situations our conscious and rational brain produces an explanation for our behavior that is based on observations the conscious mind can make. We are not aware of the primes and anchors impacting our behavior, so consciously we don’t believe they have any impact on us at all.
Nevertheless, research shows that our minds are not as independent and controllable as we subjectively believe. Kahneman’s quote shows that traditional understandings of free-will fall down when faced by research on priming and anchoring effects. We don’t like to admit that random and seemingly innocuous cues in the environment of the moment shape us because doing so threatens the narratives and stories we want to believe about who we are, why we do the things we do, and how our society is built. It is scary, possibly upsetting, and violates basic understandings of who we are, but it is accurate and important to accept if we want to behave and perform better in our lives.