The book “You Are Not So Smart” dedicates its first chapter to talk about something awesome called “Priming”. I’ll try my best to sum it up here.
Basically, there was this experiment where two participants would sit at a table, facing each other. They would have to agree on a fair division of 10 dollars between the two.
Now the way they would do this is they would reach in a bag to take one of two pieces of paper. One of them would get a piece of paper with the word “offer”, and the other a piece saying something like “decide”. The one with the “offer” role would have to make an offer, freely – let’s say, “we both get $5” or “I get $7 and you get $3”. The other one would have to decide on accepting or refusing the offer.
Now, there’s not one catch, but three:
1. If the offer isn’t accepted, no one gets any money. This means it has to be at least somewhat fair to both sides – while preferably maximizing profits for the offerer.
2. One of the participants is actually an actor. There’s only one participant, and the researchers made sure it’s always the one who gets the “offer” role.
It’s getting simpler now, right?
Here’s the third and main catch:
3. Half of the participants waited for the experiment in a different waiting room. One of the waiting rooms had a business-themed decoration, featuring briefcases, expensive pens, office art, suits, ties and firm handshakes. The other one had a beach-themed decoration, with sea, sand, surf and sun.
What happened is that the vast majority of participants which had waited in the business-themed room were agressive in their offers. They would argue and try to “sell” their offer. They would say things like “sure, I’ll get $8, which is way more than you do, but you’ll get $2, which is $2 more than nothing!”
On the other hand, the vast majority of the people which had waited in the relax-themed room would carelessly and generously made a 50% offer so both people would leave the room with $5 and be done with it.
The takeaway is that our actions are always being influenced by the values and messages perceived in our environment. Always. Unconsciously.
Isn’t it scary?