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Friday, August 29, 2008


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Suggestibility: How to be an Einstein
Mark Tyrrell
I was pounding the treadmill at the gym the other week, not looking at the clock, trying to
forget how slowly time was passing. Suddenly I noticed that the programme on the TV
monitor had changed from a quiz show to some sports event where athletes were running. I
was looking at people doing what I was doing. And a strange thing happened. As I watched
this pack of long distance runners, these lean mean running machines, I suddenly became
aware that my own pace had speeded up and that I was feeling more energised! This
happened quite unconsciously until the point where I happened to notice it. What would have
happened to me if there had been a show about elderly people getting about on their Zimmer
Seeing a `type' makes us act differently
Students were `experimented on' (no rats were available!) by psychologist John Bargh. He
wanted to prime their unconscious minds very specifically to influence their behaviour. He
asked students to walk down a corridor into his office where he gave them a test. They had to
make grammatical four word sentences out of apparently random lines of words as quickly as
possible. The students didn't know that many of the words were associated with the state of
being old ­ in other words, the `stereotype' being subliminally presented to the unconscious
minds of these young students was that of an old person. So they found themselves re-
arranging words like `grey', `old', `lonely', `bingo', `wrinkle', `Florida', etc. These words were
embedded among lots of other words and were not necessarily specifically linked to people at
all. What happened next was startling.
What Bargh was really testing for was the effect of this experience of subtle exposure to a
particular `type' on the way the students then walked back down the corridor away from his
The vast majority walked out much more slowly than they had walked in. Their behaviour had
been influenced by words which fitted a stereotype (even though they were unaware of the
`elderly' words they had been exposed to!).
People exposed to words suggesting the type `rude' behaved more rudely afterwards. While I
myself was gym running, my mind was exposed to a `type' ­ fit, fast and athletic ­ which had
speeded up my running! Students subtly exposed to word tests more weighted with words
such as `strong', `firm', `young', `quick', `fast', `sporty' walked out more quickly back down the
We are creatures who are easily influenced beyond our conscious awareness and who will
automatically try to fit the type or stereotype presented to us ­ especially if we are not
conscious of exactly what it is. So teenagers adopt the type they are exposed to on TV and
socially, and talk and dress and act accordingly (rather than imitate their parents). And we
tend to eventually adopt the accents and phrases and attitudes of those we mix with.
So if you want to score better in a fitness test, here's what to do. Watch athletes (or imagine
them) before or (ideally) while you are exercising. Or even think of as many `fit' words as you
can, like `able', `fit', strong', `stamina', `athletic', just before you exercise. You need to bring up
the stereotype `fit athlete' in your mind.
But now ask yourself this: Who do you surround yourself with?

Pick your type
Environments which contain a majority of one `type' (stereotype), for example, old people's
homes, are likely to produce more of the behaviour associated with that type (infirm
behaviour) than a more mixed environment would. In Germany, nurseries and old people's
homes are being built side by side in some areas, with great results. The elderly residents
see and interact with the young and vibrant and therefore have the blueprint of `young' and
`lively' presented to them. The very young have a check on the `type' they are normally
exposed to, and have a chance to learn self restraint and thoughtfulness towards their older
And here's what to do if you want to score better in an IQ test.
Think like smart people
Two Dutch researchers carried out a study asking groups of students fairly difficult questions
from the game `Trivial Pursuit'. The groups were split into two, and half were asked to spend
the five minutes before the test thinking about what it means to be a college professor ­ e.g.
smart, glasses, air of academia, etc ­ and half were asked to think what it means to be a
soccer hooligan ­ e.g. rough, loud, trouble maker, drinking, arrests, etc. They wrote down all
the associations they could think of.
The `hooligan' group got an average score of 42.6 percent of the questions right. The
`professor' group's average was 55.6 percent.
The test was repeated several times with different groups, and allowances made for IQ and
even how familiar people were with Trivial Pursuit. The results came out the same. Thinking
about smart people (the stereotype) makes you smarter! Thinking about dumb people and
words you associate with stupidity makes you dumber!
All this has huge implications for communication. The words you use in your conversation, if
weighted to form a specific type, will have powerful effects on people you talk to ­ and you
will similarly be affected when you listen to others.
Bad therapy
If a therapist (or doctor) primes a patient with words like `difficult', `painful', `hard', `upsetting',
and so forth, the client is much more likely to fit their behaviour and experience
(unconsciously) to the `type' of a depressed or anxious or even physically pained person. All
good therapy schools teach their students how to use language effectively. If you pepper your
language with `comfortable', `calm', `good', `excellent', etc you will be presenting a positive
type for your listener to fit in with.
A doctor or surgeon who primes their patient with words like `heal', `comfort', `active', `better',
`rapid', `healthy', and so forth will activate the pattern of health and faster healing in their
patients more effectively than the health professional who is less aware of the power of
But here's where it gets even more interesting. Having a hero or an idol can be bad for you
and make you perform less well!
Einstein and the supermodels
When people were exposed to pictures of groups of professors, they did better in intelligence
tests because the stereotype `professor' activated the bright pattern in them. However, when
they were shown a picture of just one brilliant man ­ Einstein ­ they scored less well in the
tests! Why? Because Einstein is seen as a one-off `I could never be like him' kind of genius ­
making you feel dumber in comparison, and so scoring lower on the test.
Students who were shown groups of supermodels responded to the unconsciously activated
`not so bright' pattern and scored less well in intelligence tests. But when they were shown

pictures of just one very well known supermodel, they scored better. This was because they
were feeling `I am not like her at all'.
So impossible exemplars like Einstein, Babe Ruth, or Mother Theresa, if we hero worship
them, can lower our performance when trying to attain their qualities. Being exposed to a
general type is what shapes our behaviour. When the great religions talk about the dangers of
idol worship, maybe they are not really being moralistic at all, but are drawing our attention to
quite sophisticated psychological truths. There are dangers of idolising individuals which
threaten your own self-development. Idolising even the founder of a religion may actually
prevent you from developing their qualities because of this phenomenon ­ unless you also
see `enlightened people' as a type.
Similarly, having talented figureheads to organisations can lower the talent of people within
the organisations if they look up to that figurehead as a `one-off genius'. Going for a strategy
which highlights a positive stereotype of `very clever people' rather than one which highlights
`one very clever individual' is thus more likely to encourage the general adoption of the
desired positive behaviour.
And now?
All this shows that we adopt role models as long as we feel we can model them and replicate
what they do well rather than idolise them and consider what they do to be beyond our reach.
So how do you live your life?
Are you surrounded by intelligent, enthusiastic, optimistic people? There's a great type to
conform to! Remember that those students could get a stereotype pattern activated just from
being exposed to words ­ so think what happens when we are exposed to particular types of
TV shows, movies or books.
A continuous diet of true life crime shows will activate a type in you. Watch a diet rich in
intelligent conversational shows and your IQ is likely to rise to fit the pattern. Watch a
biographical show about Einstein ­ a `one off genius' ­ and your scores on intelligence tests
are likely to plummet.
We are all much more suggestible than we realise. We are even more suggestible when we
think we are not! I'm off to the gym now. I hope they've got something good on the TV...


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