Process of Discovery
John A. Bargh
Influence without awareness
Saul - How did you first become interested in psychology?
Saul - How did you come up with your important discovery?
John - In 1977, Tory Higgins published an important article on how the impressions people form of others can be "primed" by a prior experience. Higgins and his colleagues showed, for the first time, that people who were asked to memorize lists of positive or negative trait terms-like "brave" or "reckless"-were unconsciously affected by those terms later, in forming impressions of a specific person.
One objection to that study was that participants may have figured out that the word lists were supposed to influence their later judgments. Therefore, a fellow graduate student and I designed a study in which we presented the trait words subliminally, so participants did not even know they were presented. The subliminal part of the study, we said, was a "reaction time task" in which participants were to respond quickly to random flashes of light on a screen. In reality, each flash was a trait word presented on the periphery of the visual field, so it was processed outside of awareness. This was a good way to prime positive and negative concepts without participants knowing it. Sure enough, those subliminally exposed to words related to kindness or hostility then judged a neutral target person as kind or hostile-a form of influence without awareness.
Saul - How has the field you inspired developed over the years?
John - Many studies have been done since then showing these kinds of effects on a wide variety of behaviors. We found, for example, that subliminal exposure to words that related to achievement caused people to work harder and score higher on cognitive tasks, and that subliminal exposure to words related to old age caused people to walk at a slower pace. Importantly, it does not matter whether the priming is subliminally or with awareness. We think that we know the bases for our behavior and can control the way we think, but this research suggests otherwise.
Saul - What's your prediction on where the field is heading?
John - It is an exciting time right now for research on subliminal and nonconscious influences because it is pretty well established that so much experience takes place for reasons we are not aware and don't intend. We are moving on to issues about how nonconscious influences interact with each other. The big question to be addressed-for me, at least-is, if so much mental activity occurs through nonconscious forces, what is consciousness itself for?