There is a plethora of research that shows that activation of the mental representation of a construct can lead to behavior that is congruent with the construct. The following studies in social psychology demonstrate this:
- Macrae and Johnston (1998) found that participants who were primed with the concept of helpfulness were more likely to help the experimenter.
- Dijksterhuis and Knippenberg (1998) showed that priming participants with the stereotype of college professors improved their performance in general knowledge questions.
- Dijksterhuis, Bargh, and Miedema (2000) showed that when participants were primed with words related to the elderly, the memory of the participants for the features of the experimental room declined.
- Bargh, Gollwitzer, Lee-Chai, Barndollar, and Trötschel (2001) found that priming participants with synonyms of achievement activated nonconscious goals and resulted in better performance in a word-puzzle task in comparison to participants primed with neutral words.
Note that in these experiments, participants are not consciously aware of the prime and are unaware of the behavior that is caused as a result of it.
Now, why does this happen?
- Activation of the mental representation of a construct leads to behavior that is congruent with the construct.
- Merely perceiving a behavior (perception is mostly automatic) makes it more likely that an individual will engage in that behavior. This occurs due to the close association or overlap between perceptual and motor representations for the same type of behavior.
- It does not matter even if the goal is nonconscious; once a goal is activated, people strive to achieve the goal even despite difficulties.
Do these studies have implications for safety-critical domains? Will priming airport baggage-screeners with achievement goals improve their detection of threats? Will priming air traffic controllers with high performance goals improve collision detection performance of air traffic controllers when a collision detection aid fails?
Now how is this different from just evoking conscious goals (i.e., telling the operators to do a good job)? There is evidence that nonconscious, automatic goal pursuit has an advantage over conscious goal pursuit – the latter requires additional cognitive resources which is a limited commodity in complex job situations.
Photo credit Chrisrobertsantieau via Wikimedia Commons.