The Situationist

The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part III

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 29, 2007


This is the third in a series of posts summarizing the research on the hidden situation of our consciousness. The first two posts drew from a 2003 article by Situationist contributors Jon Hanson and David Yosifon The Situational Character.” Part I began with Hanson and Yosifon’s summary of some of the fascinating research revealing the ubiquity of “automaticity.” Part II asked the question: “If most of what we perceive, feel, and do is driven by automatic processes, then why is it that most of us perceive most of our behavior to be the consequence of our conscious will?”

This post draws from a 2004 press release by Marguerite Rigoglioso (from Stanford Graduate School of Business) describing fascinating research by social psychologists Christian Wheeler, Aaron Kay, and Lee Ross.

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It’s pretty obvious that you can tell lot about a person from the way she outfits her home or office. But what you may not know is that your own behavior can be subtly influenced by her choice of items when you’re in that space—without your even realizing it. In studying this effect, Christian Wheeler, assistant professor of marketing, has found that certain types of objects can in fact elicit very specific kinds of behavior.

Wheeler and three other researchers, including Aaron Kay [from the University of Warterloo’s psychology department] and Lee Ross from Stanford’s psychology department, carried out a number of studies in which they exposed individuals to objects common to the domain of business, such as boardroom tables and briefcases, while another group saw neutral objects such as kites and toothbrushes. They then gave all of the participants tasks designed to measure the degree to which they were in a cooperative or competitive frame of mind.

kite-table.pngIn every case, participants who were “primed” by seeing the business objects subsequently demonstrated that they were thinking or acting more competitively. The effect was the strongest when they had to respond in situations that were deliberately ambiguous. When questioned, however, participants denied that being exposed to business-related objects had influenced their behavior in any way.

“People are always trying to figure out how to act in any given situation, and they look to external cues to guide their behavior particularly when it’s unclear what’s expected of them,” Wheeler says. “When there aren’t a lot of explicit cues to help define a situation, we are more likely to act based on cues we pick up implicitly.” Simple exposure to business-related objects, it turns out, can activate the “cognitive components” that are associated with competitive behavior, he says.

For example, participants who had previously looked at pictures of business-relevant materials completed more word fragments, such wa_, _ight, and c__p___tive, using competition-related words—such as war (vs. was), fight (vs. tight), and competitive (vs. cooperative)—than those in the neutral condition. Such participants also evaluated an ambiguously written scenario involving two men who are undergoing a certain degree of conflict as being much more about competition than cooperation.

Another study transferred the effect to the real world. Participants were given $10 and asked to decide how much they were willing to share with a partner. The catch was that the partner could refuse any offer perceived to be too low, in which case neither participant would receive anything. While subjects exposed to neutral pictures generally split the money 50-50, only 33 percent of those who looked at business-related objects did, showing that they had become less cooperatively oriented. Results were similar when participants were exposed in the experiment room to actual business-related objects, such as a briefcase and an executive pen, as opposed to a backpack and a wooden pencil.

The effect was lessened, however, when the strategy game that participants were asked to play was deliberately depicted as being cooperative in nature. “This shows that when people are given an explicit context for how to behave, there is less room for business primes to exert an influence,” Wheeler explains.

“These are pretty big effects with pretty minor manipulations,” he says. The fact that participants were unaware that their behavior had been quotation4.pnginfluenced even when this fact was pointed out to them in the debriefing after the experiment is also significant. “We’re simply not conscious of how many of the things all around us affect our behavior,” he notes. This can be true, he says, even if we are not simply receiving the messages through subliminal tricks such as rapid image flashing in advertising, which is designed to circumvent our conscious awareness—but when we are seeing the objects right in front of us, as the participants in the study demonstrated.

Other research has shown that words, concepts, and images can subliminally influence people’s behavior, but Wheeler’s is the first experimental work to show that objects can, as well. One implication of these studies, he notes, is that businesses may want to take a more serious look at how their office decor can be designed to encourage either competition or cooperation.

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For a sample of previous posts (that are not part of this series) discussing the role of unconscious and automatic causes of behavior, see “The Situation of Reason,” “The Situation of Ideology – Part I,” “The Magnetism of Beautiful People,” and “The Unconscious Genius of Baseball Players.”

2 Responses to “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part III”

  1. Libet’s findings on Readiness Potential aside, the most shocking results referred to here are the misconceptions that the average person has about the conscious mind. There is nothing so obvious as the fact the environment effects us subconsciously or that the conscious mind is a very small island in a very large sea.

    While you properly note that no one can resist the effects of environment, one can, however, be aware of them and can choose to modify a limited number of specific effects. Otherwise, we would always buy the store out as it were (store being designed
    to mightily encourage the browser to spend). Voila! A function of the conscious mind! Suppression of subconscious drives, and, if necessary, retraining to modify behavior into the future.

    Our best guess ala Libet is that consciousness is a President ruling over a vast machinery of government. By far the greater part of what (s)he “rules” over is beyond his ken. Most of his/her orders are deeply conditioned by that government itself each part of which is far more capable in its purview than (s)he should ever be. (Just as trying to micro-manage all of our subconscious functions would leave us unable to walk or drive a car, Presidential micro-management is hugely counterproductive.) It’s a strong system which is why our brains and our governments use it. One simply has to realize that one of the effects is that, no matter how impressive and necessary the President, (s)he only makes a small part of his/her own decisions.

  2. […] (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I, Part II, Part III, & Part […]

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