From the book, Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do, by John Bargh, I learned about priming. Priming is a methodology that demonstrates how cultural ideologies and values operate unconsciously to influence a person’s judgements and behaviours.
In the application of NLP, we know that the unconscious mind is filtering billions of bits of information per second to easily make sense of what we’re experiencing. Our values and beliefs, and therefore the decisions we make about ourselves and the world around us, need to run through our unconscious programming that has built up over the course of our lives. This programming is structured to make it easy for us to automatically know what to do in the here & now.
Priming in Our Everyday Life
In studies conducted by Cultural Psychology researchers, important information is presented in a disguised manner so that if it affects the participant as it’s hypothesised to do, the influencing result will not be something the participant is aware of. It is thought that the way the influence is shown is unconsciously, not consciously.
Now, upon reading this I was fascinated. It got me thinking about all the time’s life around us has influenced us unconsciously.
Media, advertising, TV programs and movies are all big-ticket things we know are structured to prime us to a particular behavioural and emotional outcome, but what about more subtle things like where we live, our social circle, our education? In the context of business, decision-making and negotiation tactics can use priming. The legal system, our courts and police have primed our behaviour. Each time, we’re primed for the outcome the influencer desires.
I wanted to find out first hand – could I use priming to influence my audience in a talk about self-awareness and hermaphroditic energy?
As it turns out – yes, I can. And the results astounded me.
A Priming Experiment
First, a bit of context – the talk, Sensational Self-awareness for Lasting Impact, was about self-awareness, in addition to a new concept I’ve begun researching, Hermaphroditic Energy as well as an experience of group hypnosis.
Hermaphroditic Energy is the gender-specific combination of two opposite energetic qualities on a spectrum in the same living being. The idea is that each of us has both feminine and masculine personality attributes at all times, which operate on a spectrum of more or less (not have or don’t have).
For the purposes of this talk, its delivery was to a very small audience of ten people intentionally. As I was just testing the waters of this new idea I didn’t want to talk to a large group of people without also being able to present the research to back it up.
The Priming Hypothesis
For this experiment, I wanted to know if I could prime the men and women in different ways. For it to work, it needed to only demonstrate that I could influence the percentage of innate femininity and masculinity the person feels.
I hypothesised that females or males primed with feminine attributes would increase their feminine percentage. And likewise, women and men primed with masculine attributes would increase their masculine percentage. If either gender, supposed that they had a balance of innate femininity and masculinity, I did not expect to see a great deal of difference.
The Participants & Experiment Conditions
Of the ten participants, there were four females and six males. Two males left early, their results were not factored into the research results. I primed two females and three males with feminine attributes and the other participants with masculine attributes.
All the cards were anonymously coded and compiled upside-down so they couldn’t look ahead to see the upcoming activities. I also asked the participants to not look ahead. They were also told throughout the talk not to share their responses with anyone else and that everyone had something different on their card.
Because I knew some of the participants, I was careful to distribute the cards in such a way that I could not bias the results. They were given to the participants according to where they chose to sit around the table.
Participants did not know they were a part of an experiment; until now #sorrynotsorry. All participants had elected to come to see me speak voluntarily because of their interest in self-awareness.
The Priming Activity
I opened the talk by introducing myself and giving the first activity. This activity was the prime. It asked participants to respond on an index card to a time when they remembered feeling a particular way.
Women and men primed with feminity needed to recall a time when they identified strongly with being caring and collaborative, understanding and confident. When primed with masculine attributes, female and male participants needed to recall a time they identified themselves as strong and powerful, assertive and confident.
Note that both options have the adjective, confident. This is because, in my early research on hermaphroditic energy, there are some attributes that are gender-neutral. It is also a useful adjective for recalling memories that have highly associated emotions.
The Priming Base Percentage
I then spoke at length about self-awareness and its attributes from the Emotional Competency Framework of Emotional Intelligence research collated on the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organisations before participants were asked to complete the second activity.
In this activity, participants were asked to draw on an index card out of 100, what percentage of masculinity and feminity they felt. They could add additional thoughts to the index card if they wanted to explain their answer.
Application of Knowledge Activity
After this activity, I then spoke at length about Hermaphroditic Energy. The next activity asked them to explain what they would do to apply their learning. They were told they were in a meeting with 14 other people (an arbitrary number). Everyone in the meeting had the equivalent position and standing in the company. The only difference was that their gender was the opposite of everyone else.
They were instructed to explain what they would do to balance the hermaphroditic energy in the meeting to create rapport and better team dynamics.
The Primed Percentage
From this activity, I introduced the audience to hypnosis and induced them into a trance to experience the ‘lasting impact’ component of what made my talk sensationally self-aware.
After bringing them out of the trance, I concluded my talk and gave them the final activity, which was a replica of the second activity, only this time they had to draw and explain what percentage of feminity and masculinity attributes they felt now.
The most evident result this experiment proved is that every participant, except the one who identified as neutral, increased in the gender they were primed for. One participant (P2), the female who increased her femininity 45% said, “I don’t know why but I totally feel feminine now, 100% after this experience!”
What is especially interesting is that even if the participant first thought they felt 50/50, they later increased their percentage to favour the primed gender.
While the results demonstrate that priming does unconsciously affect our judgement and behaviour, what needs to be factored into these results, is that participants are likely to have been demonstrating their application of hermaphroditic energy. This is not necessarily a bad thing from an educators perspective but I feel it did influence the end results.
If I were to conduct this experiment again, I would make modifications that meant that the topic was solely on self-awareness but add subliminal content on gender that would address our unconscious programming and filters. I would increase the number of participants and I would provide greater time for both the talk itself and for the priming and application of knowledge activities. I would allow less time for the base and prime percentage activities with the aim to get a more instinctual response.
If I could, I would also ask participants to complete their responses online because rushed time allowances made for occasionally illegible handwriting.
Lastly, technology allowing, I would make it a part of the talk to show the results to the audience as a way of demonstrating self-awareness and how our unconscious filters affect our judgement and behaviour.
I’m really pleased with these results, but more than that, I’m really pleased I conducted this experiment in the first place. I didn’t know what to expect from the results, but I certainly didn’t expect such a high success rate.
Not only was I delivering new content, and doing all the event planning administration myself, I had to facilitate this experiment in such a way that it felt like the application of knowledge for the audience. Something I’ve very proud to have achieved.
I’d love to do this experiment again.
If you work for an organisation that would benefit from Sensational Self-awareness invite me to speak and co-facilitate the experiment. If you work for a university that would be interested in applying your research in Emotional Intelligence to the general public, get in touch too!
It’ll be great fun!!!