Thinking without thinking ...
4:13pm Sunday 30th Mar 2008

I found the following evidence for the power of positive words to be amazing, and tried to think of something I could do to make use of it.

From the book Blink:

Imagine for moment, that I'm a professor, and I have asked you to come see me in an office. You walk down a corridor, come thru doorway, and sit down at a table. In front of you is a sheet of paper with a list of five words sets. I want you to make a grammatical 4 word sentence, as quickly as possible out of each set. It's called a scrambled sentence test.

4 word sentence out of 5 possible words.


  • him was worried she always
  • from are Florida oranges temperature
  • ball the throw toss silently
  • he observes occasionally people watches
  • be will sweat lonely they
  • sky the seamless gray is
  • should now withdraw forgetful we
  • us bingo sing play let
  • sunlight makes temperature wrinkle raisins

That seemed pretty straight forward right?

Actually it wasn't. After you finish doing that test, believe it or not, you would have walked out of my office, and back down the hall, more slowly than you walked in. With that test, I affect the way you behave. How? Well look back at the list. Scattered throughout it are certain words such as worried, Florida, old, lonely, gray, bingo, and wrinkle. You thought that I was just making you take a language test. But in fact I was also making the big computer in your brain, your adaptive unconscious, think about the state of being old. It didn't inform the rest of your brain about its sudden obsession. But it took, all this talk, of old age so seriously, that by the time you finished and walked down the corridor, you acted old.

This test was devised by a very clever psychologist named John Bargh. Is an example of what is called a priming experiment, and Bargh and others have done numerous and even more fascinating variations of it, all of which show just how much is going on beneath the surface of your conscious mind.

For example, two Dutch researchers did a study in which they had groups of students answer 42 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. The students got 55.6 percent of the questions right. The other half of the students were asked to think about soccer hooligans. They ended up getting 42.6 percent of the Trivial Pursuit questions right. The "professor group" didn't know any more than the "soccer hooligans" group. They werent 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 this situation the difference between 55.6 percent and 42.6 percent is enormous. That can be the difference between passing in failing.

The psychologists Claude Steel and Joshua Aronson created and even more extreme version of this test, using black college students and 20 questions taken from the graduate record examination. The G. R. E. is a 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 would place enormous faith in tests because we think that they are a reliable indicator of the test takers 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 school, is to be constantly primed, with the idea of "smart"?

The results of these experiments are, obviously quite disturbing, and quite exciting. They suggest that what we think of as freewill is largely an illusion: much of the time, we are simply operating on automatic pilot, and the way we think and act, and how well we think and act, on the spur the moment, are a lot more susceptible to outside influence than we realize.

So now what? As an experiment I thought it would be interesting to set up mailing list that every morning emails 5 positive words, randomly selected from a large list, in a simple format. It should prime your subconscious to react in a more positive way to things you experience throughout the day. Let's see.

If I am going to send it to me, why not make it available to everyone? Feel free to sign up below, I will not use your email for any other purpose and privacy is assured.

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