It’s just as well she didn’t. The piece of art hung humbly on Gibson’s wall for many years before, by chance, she discovered the true nature of the work. Called Tres Personajes, it had been painted by renowned Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo and had been stolen years earlier. When Gibson sold the piece at auction, it sold for well over one million dollars. The question of course is how many other pedestrians had walked past the artwork on the sidewalk that day and dismissed it as worthless because of its surroundings.
Our expectations play an essential role in our experience of reality. When we are primed to view something a particular way, by our assumptions, our environments or by others, that tends to be exactly the way we experience it.
In one revealing study, a group of researchers examined how an individual’s expectation of how a wine would taste influenced their experience of actually tasting it. To do this, they had a group of people sample a range of different wines while their brain activity was monitored using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. The wine tasters were informed that the drinks they’d be sampling would range from wines that cost $5 per bottle through to $90 per bottle. Significantly but perhaps unsurprisingly, the measured degree of enjoyment each person felt while drinking the wine increased with the stated price tag of each bottle. The trick of course is that each of the wines they sample was exactly the same.
Beyond individual perceptions, our perception and experience of societal issues can largely be accounted for by the popular media. It has consistently been shown that issues that get a lot of coverage tend to gain even more attention to an extent that is disproportionate to the actual problem. The result is a perception that the issue reported on is more frequent, common or normal than it really is.
Political scientist Shanto Iyengar was one of the first to explore this dynamic back in 1982. Iyengar asked groups of residents in New Haven, Connecticut, to list the issues that mattered most to them in their community and the broader world – crime, pollution, economic stress. Then over the course of six days, he exposed the different groups to episodes of a television news program where the stories covered were carefully selected to overweight some issues over others in their coverage. At the end of the six days, he then surveyed the participants again and was struck how different each individual’s perceptions of the key issues of the day were based on what they’d seen in the news coverage. “Participants exposed to a steady stream of news about defence or about pollution came to believe that defence or pollution were more consequential problems,” Iyengar wrote. For those exposed to news stories emphasising pollution, for instance, the issue moved from fifth place in the list of concerns to second on average.
It’s important to note that Iyengar’s research was conducted in the days before targeted algorithms or social media. It’s not hard to see how politically skewed cable news outlets or monoculture Facebook groups exacerbate this dynamic more than even Iyengar could ever have imagined possible. Groups that receive coverage of an issue disproportionate to reality will develop responses that are equally disproportionate. The problem with social media algorithms is that individuals are fed posts that will appeal to them based on what they have already engaged with. Disproportionate coverage of issues is almost guaranteed, meaning our experience of reality is warped by inaccurate perceptions.
The effect of priming expectations is not limited to influencing perceptions, but has the genuine ability to change behaviour.
Research conducted by a team of psychologists in New Zealand highlights this. In the study, participants were broken into three groups with each cohort given material to read about the value of car-sharing. For the first group, car-sharing was described in terms of its environmental benefits while the second group were informed of the economic benefits of the practice and the third group acted as a control and were given non-specific car sharing information. At the end of the study, participants were thanks for their time and asked to discard the paper information documents they had been given. In the room were two choices for disposing of this documentation – a regular waste bin, and a bin clearly marked for recycling. While roughly half of those in the second and third groups placed their paper documents in the recycling bin, this figure rose to 90% for those in the first group. As the researchers concluded, even the exposure to environment-conscious messaging seemed to influence the behaviour of participants.
Priming people’s expectations of a situation alters both their perception and their experience of it. For any person in a position of persuasion, priming is an essential tool. Highly strategic advertisers and leaders intentionally use the power of priming to prepare the minds consumers and employees for the action they wish them to take. While it can be a positive and highly effective tool, in the wrong hands it becomes a dangerous weapon.
Knowing the power of priming not only offers an effective tool for the individual’s persuasive toolkit, but it empowers critical thinking. Totally independent thinking is at best rare, but developing awareness of how our expectations and perceptions are being primed enables us to assess what forces might be affecting our thoughts and opinions.
Either way, expectations are an unparalleled force, and the ability to shape them is uniquely powerful.
Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.
He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 9 books. His most recent book The New Now examines the 10 trends that will dominate a post-COVID world and how to prepare for them now.
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 Brafman, O 2009, Sway, Currency Press, Sydney, p. 175-177.
 Eyal, N 2014, Hooked, Penguin, London, p. 88.
 Pariser, E 2011, The Filter Bubble, Penguin, London, pp. 124-125.
 Pink, D 2013, To Sell is Human, Riverhead Books, New York, pp. 217-218.