Stephen Freeman Rotating Header Image

September, 2010:

What are we being primed for?

The excellent BBC popular science programme Bang Goes the Theory, recently reproduced this experiment on priming. In the original experiment, the subjects were primed by being asked to write sentences based on sets of words: one set was neutral and the other contained words related to an elderly sterotype. The result was that

participants for whom an elderly stereotype was primed walked more slowly down the hallway when leaving the experiment than did control participants, consistent with the content of that stereotype.

In the “Bang” experiment, they took two queues of people entering the Science Museum and placed pictures of the elderly and infirm around one queue, and the young and active around the other. The result was the same, people in the queue with the elderly images took significantly longer to walk into the building.

It’s striking that such a small thing can affect how we behave.

Now, look around your work environment and consider what it’s priming you for. Are you seeing artefacts of purpose and effectiveness? Or does it speak of regimentation and decay? Now look at your computer screen. Are you seeing an environment that emphasises productivity and quality? Or does it speak of control and ugliness?

It’s amazing that some of us get anything done at all.

This isn’t about spending lots of money to look nice (although that espresso machine is appreciated). I suspect that the sort of “funky, creative” offices that get commissioned from designers dressed in black are usually an upmarket version of motivational posters.

My guess is that a truly productive environment must have some “authenticity” for the people who spend most of their days in it. Most geeks I know would be happy with a trestle-table provided they get to spend the difference on a good chair and powerful kit, and other disciplines might have other priorities.

But then, perhaps every environment is authentic since the organisation is making clear what it really values most. And what might that imply?…