Are You As Old As You Feel?

How susceptible are you to suggestion? Not very?  Well maybe, but would you know? There has been an idea floating around the Social Psychology field for the past fifteen years that we can be quite unconsciously influenced  by noticing the right words.

The original experiment that purported to show this was organized so that a group of people were given a word game where they were spotting the odd word out. With some of these, the out of place word could be associated with being elderly. The control group had neutral words. After the experiment the participants walking speed was measured. The elderly primed group walked more slowly as though they were thinking “I’m old.”

Now, Doyen et al have repeated the experiment in a rather more controlled fashion with a group of 120 students from Bruxelles (1). Their walking speed was measured using infrared beams and a computer and, lo and behold, the students walked along at their normal pace, quite oblivious of any association with the elderly words that they’d been exposed to.

Well, of course, other experiments followed. The next experiment with a fresh batch of students had half the experimenters who were monitoring the human lab rats told that the expected result was that the walk would be speeded up and the other half that it would be slower. They were given stopwatches and were told the electronic kit was unreliable so they needed to measure the speeds themselves.

The experimenter’s prejudices were confirmed with the stopwatch results. But now comes the fly in the ointment. When the speeds measured by the electronics were checked, the rate was indeed slower for the data involving the experimenters that expected it to be slow, but not so with the speedy group – they had not speeded up.

So we seem to be left with a complex interaction from any priming from the actual task and the expectations of the guys running the experiment. Seems the unbiased observer is hard to find and we seem to be able to communicate what we expect without saying a word, and that can be effective if something else catches your attention.

I’m left wondering whose doing my thinking for me.


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