It’s always a good feeling when science tells us we were right all along. We conflict resolution professionals have always maintained that it matters what words we use to communicate or how the room is arranged. But the weight and temperature of objects we hold in our hands? Scientists are finding that words and objects around us influence our choices, motivations, and goals in ways that may raise your eyebrows as they did mine. In this article, we will explore the new research on how environmental stimuli can unconsciously influence our thoughts and choices, and ways to use this knowledge to the benefit of our work.
So what is “priming,” and how does it work? Over recent decades, scientists have been able to unconsciously activate or “prime” attitudes and concepts such as aggression, cooperation or loyalty. They do this by exposing individuals to relevant external stimulus–usually a word or object that can be invisible (a microsecond flash on a computer screen) or perfectly obvious (words related to “cooperate” scattered throughout a “sentence scramble” exercise). The key is that the effect of these stimuli takes place entirely outside of our awareness or conscious intent.
How can this be? Making Freud’s theories look conservative, a growing number of social scientists today think that most of our behavior is guided by our own intelligent unconscious mental system. In it we store accumulated knowledge about the world, organized into categories they call mental structures. We might think we make conscious, reasoned decisions, but we actually evaluate events quickly and automatically by evoking what we quickly select as the most relevant stored mental structures and using them to interpret the present encounter. Although scientific understanding of these concepts are under constant development, for our purposes we might compare the priming and activation of unconscious mental structures to the colloquial meaning of the term “priming,” such as giving tax refunds to jumpstart the economy, or pouring water into an old pipe to force out air and resume water flow. A single intervention unleashes a dormant capacity.
Thus, when experiment participants were asked to think about the lowest and highest fair prices before negotiating for a car (i.e., a “fairness” prime), they made conciliatory moves more quickly, were happier with the results and reached agreement in half the time compared to others. Moreover, the “fairness” primed participants were more interested in negotiating with their seller again. Similarly, group members primed with the words dependable, helpful, share and support were more cooperative within their group than others, even to their individual economic detriment. College students primed with the word rudeness interrupted a subsequent conversation more quickly than others. And you’ll never forget what Australian researchers did in public toilets: they put signs above urinals and inside bathroom doors to prime “honesty” (see figure 1 for the actual sign used–a mirror image of the word “honest”), then watched several thousand users to see how many would pay a requested usage fee of 30 (euro) cents. Though everyone was rather stingy, the honesty–primed users did pay over a third more (average 3.664 cents) than those primed with a nonsensical word (average 2.694 cents).
So, can environmental cues transform deeply entrenched adversaries into flexible, warm cooperators? To answer this question, I talked with the field’s leading researcher, Yale Professor John Bargh. Bargh suspects that positive primes may not be sufficient to dislodge a disputant’s entrenched negative assessments of one they have known over time. He suggests harnessing the human impulse to have empathy for and feel bonded to those with whom they act in synchrony, and to cooperate against a common enemy. Individuals who perform ritual action together, such as march in unison, will tend to feel increased group belonging and behave more cooperatively. American participants who listened to and mouthed the words of the rhythmic “O Canada” anthem together showed increased feelings of being “part of the group,” and made consistently cooperative decisions in an economic game. Having a common enemy impelled cohesion among diverse New Yorkers after 9/11.
By now, it is obvious that this knowledge may raise a dilemma for dispute resolution professionals. Should we attempt to influence our clients outside of their awareness? If we do, are we interfering with our clients’ self-determination? Are we appropriate judges of what stimulus is good for them? Of course we do influence our clients through our process choices, framing of issues, suggestions and opinions. The value of understanding research on the non-conscious activation of mental processes is that we are influencing our clients by the wall art in our mediation rooms, the words we habitually use and the objects to which we expose them. With knowledge, we can avoid unwittingly exacerbating our clients’ conflicts. With knowledge, we can better support their goals in ways such as the following:
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