How do a few words affect how you act? Perhaps quite a bit. And without you even knowing it. That's the lesson that psychologists learned from the weird, subliminal Florida Effect.
The Florida Effect is one of the earliest, and most powerful, examples of “priming.” Priming, in psychological terms, means the use of background factors to put someone in a psychological state that affects their actions without their conscious knowledge. The background factors are usually images or props in the room in which the experiment is conducted. Sometimes the priming takes the form of a story that subjects listen to, or words they hear.
In the study that became the namesake for the Florida Effect, subjects were asked to arrange words into a sentence. One group of subjects had random words. The other group of subjects had words that might be associated with the elderly. “Florida,” was one of them, as was “forgetful,” “bald,” “gray,” and “wrinkle.” (Apologies to those older readers who think the words should have been more along the lines of “retired,” “month-long vacations,” “grandchildren,” “paid-off mortgage,” and “thank god the kids have moved out.” I didn’t run the study.)
After they had finished arranging the words, the subjects were asked to walk down a short hall to another room to fill out a form. Researchers timed the walk, and found that people who had had the “old” words walked more slowly than the ones that had had neutral words. They walked more slowly even though in interviews none of the people said they felt old, and none of them even saw a theme in the words they were arranging. And the Florida Effect was born.
Priming is a somewhat controversial subject. Psychologists complain that successful priming studies are rarely repeatable, and that the studies that indicated priming doesn’t work are published far less often than the studies that indicate it does, giving the concept a far more solid impression that it deserves. If you want to help resolve the dispute, time your steps after you get up from reading this and send us the data.
Read the full scientific paper