Unconscious pattern matching and behaviour

May 2008
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A fascinating piece of research published recently in Trends in Cognitive Sciences (Vol.8 No.1 January 2004) investigated how people's behaviour could be modified by exposing them to certain 'stereotypes'. The study showed that the subjects would then take on behaviours associated with those stereotypes.

Participants were 'primed' with a sterotype by exposure to words, pictures, or people. Specific behaviours were then monitored.

Some examples were:

1) Priming people with the pattern 'slow' by exposure to elderly people. Subjects were then found to walk more slowly down a corridor.

2) Priming people with words associated with library. Subjects were found to read a passage more quietly afterwards.

3) Monitoring peoples' exposure to elderly people. Those who were around the elderly more performed worse on memory tests.

4) Priming people covertly with the stereotype 'professors' (intelligence) led to an increase in performance on a general knowledge test.

5) Priming people with the stereotype 'supermodels' (stupid) led to a decrease in performance on a general knowledge test.

6) And fascinatingly, priming people with an exemplar of professors and supermodels (Einstein and Claudia Shiffer) led to the opposite effect. Those primed with Einstein got more stupid, and those primed with Shiffer got cleverer.

This is presumably due to people comparing themselves - i.e. 'There's no way I could be as clever as Einstein', which will tend to activate the pattern associated with 'stupidity', rather than 'intelligence' being activated.

Therefore, for the unconscious patterns to be activated, the brain needed a stereotype - or in other words, a pattern, which is what a stereotype is - a pattern that describes a group of people.

I think it is such a shame when I hear "I'm not the sort of person that could do that" because that thought pretty much guarantees that it will come true, as demonstrated by the exemplar study.

The opposite of this is being able to look at one person who does things well and to generalise from them to a pattern. In other words, to create a stereotype from an individual to give yourself a pattern to learn and use.

An example might be Richard Branson. You could look at him and say "I could never be like that, he is unique", which precludes you from learning anything from him.

On the other hand, you could say, "Branson is a very famous example of that type of person, but I bet there are many more like him who are just not so well know. I wonder how that sort of person goes about things that enables them to be so successful?".

(Which is one reason I think it is so healthy to come into contact with as many people as you can - you eventually start to see that there are 'types' of people, which in my opinion ultimately leads to a greater feeling of connectedness and a deeper understanding of human nature.)

Or, on a more everyday level, someone who is depressed could say "That person I know who is always cheerful, even when things aren't going so well. I wonder how they do that." That then allows them the possibility of examining the patterns of thought and behaviour used by the cheerful person, learning and use them.

I have also been thinking about rapport in this context. We could say that deep rapport between people occurs when they have activated many of the same, or similar, patterns within their brain. In the case of a conversation, that they have reached a stage where the majority of their perceptions are shared.

The reason I think this research is so important is that it gives us a profound insight into the workings of our psychology. As well as proving that we are pattern-matching organisms (which is obvious already from the way dreams, phobias and recognition work), it also illustrates just how subtly this operates.

I think this discussion could go on and on (and I have already! Wink ), and I would love to hear from others on other areas they feel this research reflects on.