A Prime Example of "Priming"

Tyson and the Beanstalk
My mom was in town this weekend and we met her at the hotel for a little continental breakfast on Saturday morning. While we were chitting and chatting, Tyson was watching a Jack and the Beanstalk video on Grandma's iPhone.

A little while later, Tyson alerted me that he needed to go the restroom (he always informs me that "a restroom is a bathroom without the bathtub!").

After he had taken care of business, he shouted, "Hey! Look at that beanstalk!" I just couldn't pass on the chance to snap a picture of him next to his newfound beanstalk (see the image to the left).

But on the car ride home I started to wonder why he had said that the little plastic tree in the bathroom was a beanstalk. After all, I can't imagine anyone else walking into that same bathroom, seeing that same tree, and saying it was a beanstalk.

How did that happen?

The answer comes from psychology.
He was "primed" to see a beanstalk.

What is priming?

According to L. L. Jacoby, priming refers to an increased sensitivity to certain stimuli due to prior experience [1].

By watching several minutes of Jack and the Beanstalk, Tyson was prone to see the tall (bigger than him), green tree as a beanstalk. If I had watched that same video, maybe I would have seen it too!

An awareness of priming made its way into the general public through Malcolm Gladwell's book, Blink (much like he did with "stickiness" in The Tipping Point). Gladwell has a way of making the obscure findings of social scientists into intriguing page-turners!

For example, on priming, Gladwell reports, "Two Dutch researchers did a study in which they had groups of students answer forty-two 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. Those students got 55.6 percent of the questions right. The other half of the students were asked to first sit and think about soccer hooligans. They ended up getting 42.6 percent of the Trivial Pursuit questions right. The 'professor' group didn't know more than the 'soccer hooligan' group. They weren't smarter or more focused or more serious. They were simply in a 'smart' frame of mind..." [2].

Maybe that's why my wife always beats me when we play Clue - she really thinks she quite the sleuth!

David Brooks, in The Social Animal, picks up on some of Gladwell's thinking. About priming, Brooks writes, "One perception cues a string of downstream thoughts that alters subsequent behavior. If you ask test subjects to read a series of words that vaguely relate to being elderly ('bingo,' 'Florida,' 'ancient'), when they leave the room they will walk more slowly than when they came in. If you give them a group of words that relate to aggressiveness ('rude,' 'annoying,' 'intrude'), they will be quicker to interrupt somebody in conversation after the experiment is supposedly over" [3].

We should note that priming, like technology, is morally neutral. It can be used for good or for bad, depending on the intended outcomes of the person or group doing the priming.

This is relevant for ministry, of course, because we are all aiming at the transformation of people's hearts. We want them to desire the kingdom of God, and so to work and live toward that particular vision of life that comes about when God is acknowledged as King. The church can offer people opportunities to think and practice in the kinds of ways that move them (should we say "prime" them) in that direction.

In my next post I will discuss more ways in which the church functions as a "priming community."

[1] L. L. Jacoby (1983), "Perceptual Enhancement: Persistent Effects of an Experience," Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 9 (1), 21-38.
[2] Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, 56.
[3] David Brooks, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, 180.

Related Posts:
Sticky Sermons: Evolution of "The Stickiness Factor"
Deficient / Sufficient Narratives


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