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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?…


  1. I love that concept. It totally justifies my spending on our Aeron chairs and Macs. I hope it doesn’t suggest that neater written storycards lead to higher quality code! Tom DeMarco touches on this concept in Peopleware too.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by SteveF , Simon Kirk. Simon Kirk said: Great blog by @sf105 about "priming". Prime example of the difficulty of perceiving the system one is within. […]

  3. Frank Carver says:

    This is a really interesting point to make, and I’m sure there is a lot of validity in it. I thought quite a bit about this programme after I watched it the other day, and have a few additional observations.

    The second experiment performed by the “Bang!” team was not nearly so conclusive. In a team situation it seems quite likely that the characteristics of other team members are also acting in the same way as the “primer” stereotypes. In effect, the team conforms to its own combined stereotype, which in turn reinforces it even more.

    A reasonable deduction from this might be that people who work on their own (at home, in cubcles, etc.) would be more susceptible to external cues. Another deduction might be that a team which has become strongly positive or negative through this feedback process would be extremely hard to turn round.

    The programme vaguely suggested the theory that this effect is a natural part of human behaviour, in which everyone subconsciously adapts to their idea of the group, to “fit in”. This would be a very powerful binding mechanism, on the same lines as “mob mentality”.

    However, characteristics which run counter to such processes are commonly observed in people exhibiting aspects of the autism/aspergers spectrum. Such people can find it difficult to interpret social and interpersonal cues and often stick out as “anti social” or “uncaring”. It’s a popular understanding that there is a higher proportion of people exhibiting these characteristics in highly technical fields such as software development.

    These factors may act to mitigate or reduce the observed “priming” effect among software teams. It sounds as if re-running some of these experiments on people with varying degrees of autism/aspergers, and on teams of “boffins” could set someone up for a PhD.

  4. @frank. Interesting thought about whether the team dynamics are stronger than the environment. I’m sure someone out there has a more informed opinion than mine.

    I have, however, seen a team energised simply by reorganising the desks and a couple of pot-plants.

  5. @richard. We both know a team which I think created a better atmosphere by buying Macs to develop on–and I think it’s a great recruitment tool too.

    As for story cards, I think they should be a bit scrappy, that reinforces their provisional role. It says we’re putting the effort into doing the right thing well, rather than prettying up the documentation 🙂

  6. Brian Marick says:

    Could tie this in to “Broken Window Theory” and also extend it beyond the office to the public environment. The crappy infrastructure in my town (state, country) certainly primes me to expect little from government and so nicely predisposes me to deny it the funds to do more than little. We could use the equivalent of Macs and potted plants.

  7. […] Freeman has an excellent post titled What are we being primed for? Quoting, In the “Bang” experiment, they took two queues of people entering the Science Museum […]

  8. Jamie says:

    I read a good article about Darren Brown which was interesting. The power of suggestion and all that.

    A friend of mine in London tried to apply ideas from PeopleWare to what is what like working in the front office. His findings are interesting.

  9. Ray Millard says:

    In today’s programme you said we measure length in metres and mass in kilograms. Wrong. Here in England we use yards and pounds!!

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