Priming effects and modern elections

6 09 2012

Lately, I’ve been slowly working and reworking my way through Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. The book discusses the cognitive biases that we humans are affected by, due to the way our brains work. It’s fascinating reading.

One effect that influences our judgement and our supposedly independent, rational brains is what Kahneman calls the “priming effect”. For instance, if you read the words “bananas” and “vomit” together, you’re probably not going to want to eat a banana right away. Another example: if you read the word “eat”, and are asked to fill in the blank in the word S O _ P, you’re more likely to think of “soup” than “soap”. But, if you read the word “wash”, it’s more likely to be the other way around. As Kahneman points out, “disbelief is not an option” – priming effects have been proven true in scientific studies, and affect each and every one of us.

Priming effects can influence how we vote, as well. For example, Kahneman cites a study which showed that support for a proposition to increase school funding is greater if the voting station is in a school. What’s disturbing about this is that the priming effect and other cognitive biases could easily be exploited by an unscrupulous political party or other faction. A well-funded party whose leaders were familiar with the concept of priming effects could hire operatives whose job it was to ensure that the electorate was primed to support the party’s policies or vote for it in an upcoming election. My hypothesis: this is already happening, and may explain a lot of the current North American political situation.

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