Experimental social psychologists are a devious bunch. They do all sorts of super-subtle things to their subjects. Before going any further, it might be worth reading my take on “Material priming: the influence of mundane physical objects on situational construal and competitive behavioral choice.” (Aaron C. Kay, S. Christian Wheeler, John Bargh and Lee Ross Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, September 2004)
Long story short? By “priming” folks with symbols of “business” (briefcases boardroom tables, etc) you can get them to be a lot more selfish than their normal base-rate/a control group.
Now, on the subject of priming, there’s these two quotes from “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell…
Two Dutch researchers did a study in which they had groups of students answer forty-two fairly demanding questions from the board game Trivial Pursuit. Half were asked to take five minutes beforehand to think about what it would mean to be a professor and write down everything that came to mind. Those students got 55.6 percent of the questions right. The other half of the students were asked to first sit and think about soccer hooligans. They ended up getting 42.6 percent of the Trivial Pursuit questions right. The “professor” group didn’t know more than the “soccer hooligan” group. They weren’t smarter or more focused or more serious. They were simply in a “smart” frame of mind and, clearly, associating themselves with the idea of something smart, like a professor, made it a lot easier – in that stressful instant after a trivia question was asked – to blurt out the right answer.
And this, which is deeply alarming and discombobulating.
The psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson created an even more extreme version of this test, suing black college students and twenty questions taken from the Graduate Record Examination, the standardized test used for entry into graduate school. When the students were asked to identify their race on a pretest questionnaire, that simple act was sufficient to prime them with all the negative stereotypes associated with African Americans and academic achievement – and the number of items they got right was cut in half. As a society, we place enormous faith in tests because we think that they are a reliable indicator of the test taker’s ability and knowledge. But are they really. If a white student from a prestigious private school, gets a higher SAT score than a black student from an inner-city school, is it because she’s truly a better student, or is it because to be white and to attend a prestigious high school is to be constantly primed with the idea of “smart”?
On that last bit – “or is it because to be white and to attend a prestigious high school is to be constantly primed with the idea of “smart”?;
well, at this point everyone in the world should go and read all of Cynthia Peters’ essay “The boy next to me sings all the time.” But everyone’s on a time budget, so here’s the first paragraphs
A 12-year old girl I know has spent most of her years in parochial or public schools. This year, she’s got a full scholarship to a very expensive all girls’ school in Boston. After one day at this new school, she eloquently captured some differences in working-class vs. upper-class educations. “In my old school,” she told me, “I just needed to raise my hand and give the right answer. That’s all they wanted from me. But in my new school, they want … [and here she paused to give the word its full weight] my observations.”
She enunciated the word carefully, the way you would if you were speaking a second language, and the look on her face told me she was clearly marveling at the idea.
Rich kids get taught they matter. Poor kids get taught they don’t. That’s the mother of all priming. So it goes.