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Suggestibility: How to be an Einstein

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 frames?

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 office.

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 corridor.

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 neighbours.

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 priming.

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'.

Religion's higher knowledge?

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? That'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...

Related: 3 wily ways to make your clients more receptive

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