By GARY GUTTING
The New York Times - Opinionator
Originally published October 31, 2013
Reports of psychological experiments are journalistic favorites. This is especially true of experiments revealing the often surprising effects of “priming” on human behavior. Priming occurs when a seemingly trivial alteration in an experimental situation produces major changes in the behavior of the subjects.
The classic priming experiment was one in which college students had been asked to form various sentences from a given set of words. Those in one group were given words that included several associated with older people (like bingo, gray and Florida). Those in a second group were given words with no such associations. After the linguistic exercise, each participant was instructed to leave the building by walking down a hallway. Without letting the participants know what was going on, the experimenters timed their walks down the hall. They found that those in the group given words associated with old people walked significantly slower than those in the other group. The first group had been primed to walk more slowly.
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