Automaticity

One of the more curious mental phenomena in Old Bunyard’s Philosophick Fables is the one covered by the 92nd Fable, ‘Tiger Diplomacy’. This is the story of a war between the macaques and the elephants, who all owe allegiance to the Tiger King and his wife. Both parties seek the support of their regents, who not unnaturally wish to avoid a bloody conflict that will surely mean the end of the macaques; but equally they mustn’t show favouritism. The Tiger Queen has the solution. She gives both sides a pep talk, but of very different complexions. The one she gives the macaques is snappy and upbeat, and the other, to the elephants, stately and sombre. When the battle starts, the elephants lumber about, while the macaques race around elusively, and no one comes to any harm.

The Tiger Queen obviously knows something about psychology, and particularly the phenomenon of ‘automaticity’ – a term that covers various forms of unthinking behaviour. John Bargh of Yale is famous for demonstrating how such automaticity can be activated by a process called ‘priming’, whereby for example one can get a person to perceive a drink as being sweet just by giving them such an expectation. One of Bargh’s most dramatic experiments showed that people who’d read a passage including words suggesting oldness actually walked away from the lab significantly more slowly than others who hadn’t.

There has been controversy over Bargh’s work because some other researchers have been unable the replicate his results in their own tests: a depressingly common occurrence in today’s academia. Nevertheless, the power of suggestion is so ubiquitous that Bargh’s theory remains plausible. For example, it has been convincingly demonstrated that merely watching a violent movie or playing a violent video game does indeed engender anti-social behaviour, even if the protagonists deny it. But it’s not all negative: you can prime friends to be jolly just by putting a record on, or by lying to them that the juice they’re drinking has alcohol in it. Businesses are increasingly interested in how they can use subtle cues to make customers spend more extravagantly. One experiment showed that, by playing classical music, a restaurant was able to get diners to spend substantially more, without their being vaguely aware of the fact. It’s important to keep your wits about you, and know when you’re being manipulated – for good or ill.

PS Very topically, the Scotland rugby union team took on the English at Twickenham today. They were expected to do well, having recovered in recent weeks from their usual torpor. As the national anthems were being played, however, a visitor to my home commented of the Scottish one, “What a terrible dirge!” I had to smile, having read that it has been statistically proven that the adoption of ‘Flower of Scotland’ had not only coincided with Scotland’s descent as a sporting nation (Andy Murray aside, of course) , but caused it. How? By priming the Scots, with its lugubrious xenophobia, to play in an elephantine manner. Conversely, its predecessor ‘Scotland the Brave’ had been thoroughly uplifting. Remembering how competitive Scottish sports teams always used to be, I thought it an intriguing claim. Certainly yesterday’s match didn’t contradict it: England set a record score for the fixture, winning 61-21.

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