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31 July 2007

How to Be Popular *and* Get Your Kids to Clean Up!

As a comedian in the 1980s put it, “The mind is a terrible thing.”

Imagine all the stuff that goes on without your conscious self being aware of it. Sure, there are the old standbys like breathing, heart pumping, digestion, and the like. But scientists have been playing games with ingenuous study participants for years. And now they’ve got a pretty good idea of how we can “prime” someone’s subconscious.

For example:

[S]tudy participants, college students, had no idea that their social instincts were being deliberately manipulated. On the way to the laboratory, they had bumped into a laboratory assistant, who was holding textbooks, a clipboard, papers, and a cup of hot or iced coffee — and asked for a hand with the cup.

That was all it took: The students who held a cup of iced coffee rated a hypothetical person they later read about as being much colder, less social, and more selfish than did their fellow students, who had momentarily held a cup of hot java.

I know what you’re thinking: “Hogwash.” But really, it isn’t. Researchers have done it with competitiveness (a briefcase vs. a backpack at the end of the table during a game can make you more or less cutthroat in your choices), helpfulness, bias, and—my favorite—cleanliness:

In another experiment, published in 2005, Dutch psychologists had undergraduates sit in a cubicle and fill out a questionnaire. Hidden in the room was a bucket of water with a splash of citrus-scented cleaning fluid, giving off a faint odor. After completing the questionnaire, the young men and women had a snack, a crumbly biscuit provided by laboratory staff members.

The researchers covertly filmed the snack time and found that these students cleared away crumbs three times more often than a comparison group, who had taken the same questionnaire in a room with no cleaning scent. “That is a very big effect, and they really had no idea they were doing it,” said Henk Aarts, a psychologist at Utrecht University and the senior author of the study.

From now on, I will walk around with a cup of hot coffee, handing it to new people as I am introduced to them, ensuring my new reputation as a warm, social, and friendly person. I will also place a cup of citrus-y smelling cleaner in my daughters’ room, guaranteeing myself free cleaning staff for the next several years. Hah!

Get a free login at bugmenot, then go read the entire article at the New York Times.