Disarmament Insight


Wednesday, 8 August 2007

The Power of Priming

The human subconscious, it turns out, is more active than we think. And it can be primed in remarkable ways by seemingly mundane objects, smells and sounds, as a recent New York Times article outlined.

The article reported, for instance, one recent study by Yale psychologists, which revealed that college students handed either a cup of hot or iced coffee on the way to class were influenced by the temperature of the beverage: when later asked to judge a person from a written description, those handed iced coffee rated them “much colder, less social and more selfish” than those handed hot coffee.

In another study, students were asked to play an investment game with an unseen player. The students were placed at either a long table with a black briefcase and leather folder or a backpack left at the end of the table. The results revealed that students played differently when the briefcase and folder as opposed to the backpack were on the table. According to the researchers, the briefcase and leather folder primed the students to be stingier with their money, drawing on unconscious associations with “business-related associations and expectations.”

In yet another experiment, students were placed in a cubicle in one of two rooms and asked to fill out a questionnaire. After filling in the questionnaire, the students were given a crumbly snack. Unbeknownst to them, the researchers had placed a bucket of water with a hint of citrus cleaner in one room but not the other. Sure enough, the students in the room with the faint odor of cleaning solution cleaned up the remnants of their snack three times more than the control students.

The moral of the story, for me, is that we’re always trying to determine how we should behave in any given situation. But we may not be cognizant of all the factors influencing our perceptions, with the “conscious” brain taking directions from our subconscious that we didn’t even realize were issued.

It begs an interesting question for me, working in the 80 year old splendour of the UN Palais des Nations (formerly the seat of the defunct inter-war League of Nations). How might a room like the Council Chamber in Geneva, the scene of over a decade of floundering Conference on Disarmament (CD) meetings, prime diplomats for a new session of work? As you can see from the photo I’ve included with this posting, the Council Chamber’s drab green and gold murals tell the tale of human suffering and toil. Heavy green curtains make sure not a sliver of daylight peeks through and the Chamber’s walls bring to life murals like “The Conquerors,” “The Conquered” and “The Death of Freedom” (which themselves are a little on the surreal side). And the Council Chamber sometimes feels more like a museum than a working disarmament body, such is the reverential hush of CD meetings there, as interventions are delivered and translated through elderly surgical plastic wired earpieces to formally attired diplomats.

A legacy of deadlock sends one message to disarmament diplomats. But perhaps murals that portray human struggle, in the drabbest of drab colors with no natural light, send another. It just might put diplomats in the wrong frame of mind. Of course, I’m not making the claim that simply changing the room would be the difference between success and failure in the CD. But it might be a start.

Ashley Thornton


Benedict Carey, Who’s Minding the Mind, The New York Times, 31 July 2007:

This photo is part of a mural, “The Solidarity of Peoples (The Lesson at Salamanca),” by José María Sert in the Conference on Disarmament chamber, Geneva. Taken by Mel and John Kots, retrieved from flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/melanieandjohn/127443220/