I saw a video a few years ago showing a psychological research study on priming. The researchers had participants come into a building and an associate of the study greeted the participants and had them follow the associate to an elevator. Some participants were then asked to hold a hot beverage in their hand while the associate bent down to [ostensibly] tie their shoes while another group of participants were asked to hold a cold beverage. This was the actual key or focus of the study, the hot or cold beverages.
After getting off the elevator, the participants were led to a room where they were present while someone was supposedly being interviewed for a job. The participants were then asked after the ʻintervieweeʻ had left whether or not they would hire the person just interviewed. Those participants who had held the cold beverage in the elevator overwhelmingly said they would not hire the interviewee, while those who held the hot beverage overwhelmingly said they would hire the interviewee. The differences were statistically significant. This means that we are subconsciously [or whatever the term would be] affected by something so seemingly insubstantial as holding a hot or cold beverage. [I can imagine all sorts of scenarios where this small thing could have a big impact, such performance reviews or customer satisfaction surveys and the like.]
Elizabeth Langer also discussed priming in her book Counterclockwise: "Primes often tell us what is expected of us, and too often we mindlessly comply" (p. 85). Langer discusses priming in regards to people being subtly influenced by aging priming cues. In an experiment, participants were randomly put into either a group to solve anagrams that had been formed from words reflecting stereotypes about old age (e.g. felorguft from forgetful), while the control group solved anagrams that were formed from more neutral words. After the participants finished solving the anagrams, the researchers timed their short walk to the elevator to leave and discovered that those in the experimental group walked to the elevator more slowly than the control group.
The reverse is also true; mindless priming can be "reversed." In another study that Langer and colleagues performed, they had people sort a hundred photographs of young and old people. They found that "if young people sort mixed photos of old and young people, the photos primed old age. Those in the control group were asked to put the photos into two groups, "old" or "young", thus priming them for old age, and thus replicated the slow walking noted in the above experimented after they finished the sorting project. The experimental group sorted the photos in a non-age-related category, such as sex, while a second experimental group generated their own non-age-related sorting categories" (p. 86). So, did the experimental group participants, who sorted the photos according to non-age-related categories walk slower or faster? You guessed it; they walked faster than the group who sorted according to age. Langer calls this "mindful sorting" and believes that "being mindful allowed them to overcome the effects of the ʻold ageʻ prime" (p. 87).
What about you? Do you use age-related phrases or thoughts, such as "Iʻm too old for this" or "Iʻm getting to old to do that" or "Youʻre too old to do that"? In our "Immortality Cult" discussions, we talk about the words and phrases that people all-too-often use about themselves as they age, as well as others who are ʻold.ʻ Perhaps it is way past time to get rid of these ʻmindlessʻ notions and words about aging? We can start today by noticing the words and thoughts we use or have about aging, and start re-framing them for a more positive attitude about aging. What kind of words or phrases would you eliminate, and what would you use to replace them? And, an even bigger question is: do we have to believe the changes we are making in order for them to have an effect? Where does belief come into play? For example, if someone really does believe that a person at X age shouldnʻt be doing something, does changing the wording make any difference? From the studies and research Iʻve read about, the changes likely can make a difference, even if belief may not be present. And, it could well be that belief might follow as we change our words!
Langer, Elizabeth 2009. Counterclockwise: Mindful health and the power of possibility.