Objects as material primes

A couple of years ago I read a fascinating paper that examined, experimentally, the impact that metaphors embedded in textual information can have on subsequent decision making. The results showed that the metaphors had a direct impact on participants’ decision making without the participants being aware of it. At the time, I wondered whether the same could be said of objects. It looks like the answer is ‘Yes’!!

I’m currently reading a popular psychology book, ‘You are not so smart‘ by David McRaney. The opening chapter, ‘Priming’, dealt with just this issue, especially p3-7. The chapter draws on a piece of empirical, psychological research by Kay et al., ‘Material priming: The influence of mundane physical object on situational construal and competitive behavioral choice‘ which, happily, is freely available on-line.

McRaney summarises it nicely… “Just about every physical object you encounter triggers a blizzard of associations throughout your mind. You aren’t a computer connected to two cameras. Reality isn’t a vacuum where you objectively survey your surroundings. You construct reality from minute to minute with memories and emotions orbiting your sensations and cognition; together they form a collage of consciousness that exists in your skull. Some objects have personal meaning, like the friendship bracelet your friend gave you in primary school or the handcrafted mittens your sister made you. Other items have more cultural or universal meanings, like the moon or a knife or a handful of posies. They affect you whether or not you are aware of their power, sometimes so far in the depths of your brain you never notice.”(p6)

Kay et al. are perhaps less poetic but equally interesting… “A central function of material primes, we have reasoned, is to aid in the disambiguation of social situations, and to help minimize the cognitive resources that must be expended in discerning operative norms that facilitate social coordination. Implicit in this argument, is that material primes will be most relied upon, even if nonconsciously, in situations where such norms and expectations are relatively ambiguous. This contention, we note, is consistent with findings from the priming and person-perception literature, which suggest that semantic priming is generally only effective at manipulating person perception to the extent that the perceptual targets are described some what ambiguously (see Higgins, 1996)” (p91) The results of their studies support this hypothesis.

So, in ambiguous situations, the presence of objects in the background environment which related to a business culture induced participants to behave in a more competitive fashion. “All of these effects, it is important to note, occurred without participants’ conscious awareness that their responses had been influenced by the primes” (p93).

Given that I am interested in people’s encounters in museum-esque environments, I am not interested in shaping people’s decision making but I am interested in how the objects herd our associational thinking in certain directions and how they encourage certain forms of social behaviour. This paper supports the idea that the totality of the environment museums create will shape visitors’ behaviours, thoughts and recollections without their being aware of it.

Of course, the objects have to be meaningful in order to work. “In their influential paper, Berger and Luckmann (1966) suggested that members of institutions require, and acquire, a common social ‘language’—an overlapping set of social-psychological interpretations, understandings and behavioral inclinations. The present research suggests one potential source of that ‘‘common language.’’ That is, exposure to material objects may, even without our awareness, help us to define situations, recognize operative situational norms, activate appropriate roles and interact in ways that are congruent with those norms and roles (especially among members of the same organization or institution, who are likely to hold highly similar object-meaning association” (p93)

What is interesting, to me, are those domains where the sharing of meaning breaks down, where one group no longer responds to a set of material cues as another group.

The paper also highlights some practical limits. In the studies that Kay et al. report, the situations are ambiguous and they posit that the impact of the objects depends on this and on the coherence between the objects and the situation.. “Given the general finding in the literature that the most reliable nonconscious priming effects occur in situations that keep the influence of the prime implicit but relevant and involve dependent measures that possess sufficient response ambiguity, our intuition is that the greatest differences between the presence and absence of material primes will occur in relevant (i.e., applicable) but ambiguous contexts. Future research that more directly investigates this issue, however, is clearly needed.” (p94). (Given that Google Scholar shows that this paper has been cited 294 times, I suspect that much follow-up work has already been done, which is encouraging.)

It could be argued that we knew all this but, as ever, the research provides the confidence that something real is going on and to explore the impact of the variables in museum practice.

About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in Cognition, metaphor, Objects. Bookmark the permalink.

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