Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Priming Your Readers

by Robison Wells

Last week I read the most fascinating book I've read in years: Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely. Dr. Ariely is a behavioral economist at MIT. (If you're like me, you've never heard of behavioral economics ever in your whole life. Basically, it's a backwards approach to economics: rather than studying economics theory of how the market should work (such as supply and demand theory, etc), behavioral economics studies how people actually act: how the market does work.)

The title and subtitle of the book, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, pretty much sums up behavioral economics. A huge portion of the decisions we make are based on weird quirks of the subconscious, not on logic, reason, or judgement.

An example: study after study indicates that we humans can't for the life of us logically determine the value of anything. In one study, participants wrote down the last two digits of their social security number, and put a dollar sign next to it. Then they were asked to compare that dollar amount to six products and determine if they'd pay that much for the item. So, for example, if your SS# ends in 75, then you'd compare $75 to six products: would you pay $75 for a bottle of wine? A trackball mouse? A box of Godiva chocolates? Participants were then asked to indicate the highest amount that they'd actually pay for the item. And the verdict: people with higher social security numbers were always willing to pay more! The reason is this: we can't judge value very well, so we rely on our first impressions as anchors, even if those first impressions are completely aribtrary. A person with a SS# of 75 might say "I won't pay $75 for that trackball mouse, but I'd pay $60", while someone with a SS# of 15 would say "$15 is probably too low for that trackball mouse, but I'd pay $30." The study was performed over hundreds of intelligent people--students at MIT, Harvard, Stanford and Yale!--and the results was always the same: we have a terrible time determining values.

Quite honestly, you should just read the whole dang book, because every chapter is more fascinating than the one before it. Dozens of times throughout the week I found myself hurrying into the other room to read bits to my wife, and I think I've talked about it with everyone in my neighborhood.

While the book is all great, there was a section toward the end that got me thinking about writing. (Yes, I know that I never actually talk about writing on this writing blog. But now I'm going to.)

There is a technique in psychological experimentation called Priming. Priming, basically, is a process of introducing ideas subconciously to a person, and then seeing how they respond.

In one experiment, researchers looked at the effect of stereotypes on Asian American women. There is a stereotype that women aren't very good at math, but there is also a stereotype that Asians are really good at math. So, the researchers gave a math test to a large group of Asian American women; they had exactly the same math problems, but half of the tests began with questions about race issues (such as "What languages are spoken in your home?" and "How long has your family lived in the United States?") and the other half of the tests began with questions related to gender ("How do you feel about coed dorms?", etc). And guess what the researchers found? When Asian American women were reminded that they were Asian-American, they did well on the math test. And when they were reminded that they were women, they did significantly worse. They were being subconsiously "primed" to meet a stereotype, and their behavior on the test fulfilled their expectations.

Another priming experiment: two groups of people were given a jumble of words they were supposed to unscramble. For one group, these words were negative: "aggressive", "rude", "annoying", "intrusive". For the other group, the words were positive: "honor", "considerate", "polite", "sensitive". The participants thought they were just unscrambling words, but really they were being primed positively or negatively. When they had finished, they went into the next room, where they had been told to get instructions from another researcher. However, the researcher (actually an actor) was busy, trying to explain a complex thought to another researcher/actor. The real experiment had nothing to do with how fast these partipants finished the word unscrambling, but how quickly they interrupt the researchers. And, not surprisingly, those who had been primed with negative words were much faster to interrupt: they did so after about 5.5 minutes, whereas the positively primed people waited an average of 9.3 minutes.

One last example: This last experiment is the one that is most interesting to me, and the one that made me connect priming to writing. A group of undergraduate students at NYU were primed (using the same unscrambling technique) with words related to the elderly: "bingo", "Florida", "ancient", etc. (A second, control group was primed with general, neutral words.) When the people finished unscrambling and returned their papers to the researchers, they were told they were done. They left the room and headed down the hall. But this is where the real experiment started. The people who had been primed with elderly words walked significantly slower down the hallway than those who had the neutral words! And these were 20-year-old kids!

So, writing. The third book I wrote (which hasn't been published) was about a group of people stranded in the barren deserts of New Mexico. When I finished it, I sent it out to readers to get feedback. One of the comments I got, which I don't think I ever understood until now, was that someone said the book made them thirsty. Now, it's not like I've done a study to see if the reader actually got thirsty, simply because they read words like "parched" and "dry" and "cracked" and "dessicated". But, if "bingo" and "Florida" can make a person walk slower--to act elderly--why couldn't my words actually make someone want a drink of water?

It's given me new drive with my writing. If words really do have this much subconscious power--and overwhelming evidence suggests that they do--think of how we can further enhance the reading experience! Priming is essentially evoking mood, and I know that many authors are already doing this very well, whether or not they're aware of the psychological basis for it. But I know that I can do better. I'm excited to try.


At 4/29/2008 1:12 PM, Blogger jill said...

This is why I never picked up the Little House books until my late twenties; the prairie, to me, is desolate, flat, and depressing. I didn't want to feel desolate, flat or depressed. I never read books about deserts or Mexico and I can't stand pictures of barren landscapes.
My error now realized I've been absorbed into the Ingalls world... but I'm still won't pick up any book set in a desert.

Logical? Nah. Personal preference.

At 4/29/2008 1:25 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

Interesting stuff, Rob. There's a phrase for when an author has a character in one of their books describe a problem in the actual plot. "I'm so bored." "This is so confusing." and so forth.

I wonder if you have a bored character in your book, what the possibility is of having that rub off on the reader. On the other hand, could having your characters totally caught up in the story make the reader caught up as well?

How do you see yourself applying this to Slim Jims and popcorn?

At 4/29/2008 1:37 PM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

This is a writing blog? Somewhere I missed that prime. Drat. If I shape up can I stay? ADJATCEVIS. AMARMRG. TLOP. HERTCASARC. (Those are writing-related words I'm going to unscramble before Friday.) Don't worry. I'll be ready.

I've already ordered the book. It sounds fascinating. And true. I recently read Mary Roach's "Stiff." Absolutely fabulous, but now I wonder if it's affected my subconscious -- I have been feeling a little more lifeless than usual.

What a great post. Thanks!

At 4/29/2008 4:14 PM, Blogger Marsha Ward said...

The Amazing and Gracious Kerry always tells me how she can see each location in my work very clearly. Actually (don't tell her, okay?), I think I put very little description in my novels, so I must be using the right priming words, yes?

Yes! (fist in air, arm pulled down)
[big sigh of relief]

Thanks for 'splaining' it, Rob.

At 4/29/2008 5:55 PM, Blogger Matthew Buckley said...

Rob, if you liked that book, you might find this article interesting. Different topic, but along the same vein (talking about how humans can't really grasp the value of things).

At 4/29/2008 6:46 PM, Blogger Tristi Pinkston said...

That is really cool, Rob. Just goes to show how powerful words really are and the stewardship we take on when we use them.

At 4/30/2008 12:13 AM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

Those experiments are almost scary--but what a cool connection to writing. I think you're right on with it. I've gotten hungry or thirsty or worn out or whatever reading a well-written book where the characters are feeling those things. If I could evoke anything like that, I'd consider it a success.

At 4/30/2008 4:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this! Thanks for sharing!

At 4/30/2008 8:02 AM, Blogger Dan Ariely said...

Thanks for the kind words about Predictably Irrational.

One thing -- I am not sure if behavioral economics is a "backwards approach to economics," or if is should be the standard approach.

And in any case I am delighted that it might help with your writing

Irrationally yours


At 4/30/2008 8:04 AM, Blogger Sariah S. Wilson said...

So how can I prime each reader to buy a hundred copies of my books to pass out to all their friends?

At 4/30/2008 10:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay Rob. That is so very, very cool that the author of Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely, actually left a comment here. Wow. You do have connections.

Did you see this video done by Dan Ariely on his book. Did you teach him your technique for giving interviews or did Dan come up with this one all by his onesie? The man actually interviews himself and some of the moderator head nodding and commentary, which would normally be banal, is hiliarious. Here's the U-Tube URL if you're interested:

Happy irrationality to all...

David G. Woolley

At 4/30/2008 10:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Rob:

Is it possible to always to be irrationally cheap, frugal and tightwaddish? I mean, really down right hording no matter the priming gravitational pull of the last two digits of the social security number? I say Doctor Dan Airely made a Type III error. Ever heard of that? Type I error is rejecting the hypothesis when its true. Type II error is accepting the hypothesis when it is in fact false. But that pesky type III error (I love this one) is just plain asking the wrong question in the first place. Who cares about a track ball mouse.

The author of Predictably Irrational (or was it called irrational exuberance?) said he paid groups of people to come to his lab to work for free. Euw. That's just plain weird. I wouldn't go to his lab if you paid me a million bucks. You can check it out here:

And there's another thing I wouldn't do. I'd never pay money for a track ball mouse. Never! Even if my social security number ended in 99. I mean really. Who in their right mind thinks a track ball mouse has any value? Zero dollars. Nada. Nothing. Its worthless!

I think the experiment is fatally flawed. Type III errors all over the place to say nothing of the fact that these subjects didn't have to empty their piggy bank and actually fork over for a track ball mouse. Some guy wearing a white frock locks you in a room and asks you to place a value on a track ball mouse? I mean, really, what are you going to do? Make him mad by telling him its worthless.

"So okay Professor, you want a value on this thing? $80 bucks. Will you unlock the door and give me a good grade now?"

Even if he had a gun I wouldn't give him anything for the wine, the mouse, the track, the ball or the degree in economics or the MBA.

What I'm saying here, Rob, is that you may want to change your major before its too late. There are people like me. Lots of us. We have a cheap gene imbeded in our DNA. We were raised in paper bags. We're the ones that brought Wal-Mart out of obscurity. We keep silent when those liberal jerks complain about Big Box outlets ruining once quiet neighborhoods with their cheap stuff. We even join the picket lines protesting the loss of those over priced local mom and pop stores, but its all a ruse. Once the brick and mortar is up and the price tag changing smiley faces are bouncing around the stratosphere we come out of the woodwork and buy anything marked at %50 off or less.

I'll bet you anything that Dan Airely never had one of us mutant cheap-gene, paper bag bread, evironmentally wal-mart biased, two digit high social security number sujects in any of his experiements. We would have skewed the results into nobel prize obscurity.

David G. Woolley
Alliance For Cheap Humans (and lower gas prices)

At 4/30/2008 3:32 PM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

Amount I would pay for a trackball mouse: $0

Seriously, why would anyone want to go back to a trackball after experiencing an optical mouse? I still remember how much crud builds up inside the trackball. Gross!

Also, last two digits: $05 =)

At 4/30/2008 6:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Imagining the implications of this is staggering! what about a classroom of juvenile delinquents, like say, Sunday School, where you start each class with an unscramble puzzle of reverent and gentle words...hmmmm.


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