As I’m sure many of you are aware, this semester we spent time learning about priming and gambling in our larger discussion on how individuals make decisions. These discussions led me to remember a clip from a movie I saw a couple of years ago. The following clip is from the movie Focus (2015). The movie follows an unlikely duo and con artists played by Will Smith and Margot Robie. For context of this scene Will Smith’s character is trying to pull of his biggest con in years. If he succeeds he is expected to make millions. He and his team have picked out this wealthy man to profit from and set themselves up to try and con the man at the Super bowl. Prior to this scene, he has had the man participate in multiple bets, each one having more value than the first. With each bet the other man won, getting more excited about the gambling. The man begs to play one more bet, walking into the trap Will Smith’s character had set for him.
This clip illustrates what we’ve studied this semester, that priming can directly though subconsciously influence our decision making. Though dramatized and exaggerated for a film, the principle that we can be manipulated by unattended auditory and visual stimuli is completely true. Will’s character trusted this effect so confidently he used it to pull off a giant con.
Like the themes explored and inflated in the scene in the film, Focus. A study completed by the University of Warwick also examined the effect of priming on gambling behavior. During the study, participants were presented with four colored doors. The first group of three doors was paired with an image of cartoon fruit similar those that appear on slot machines. These doors had a guaranteed outcome of 0 points, 40, or 80. The fourth and final door had a 50% chance of a 20 point or 60-point gain. Occasionally, the fourth door was primed with cartoon fruit representing and reminding the participant of a past win or loss in the experiment. Being primed and reminded of the past win or loss then affected their choice.
The study concluded that when individuals were “reminded” or primed of previous wins they were 15% more likely to gamble and select the risky option. Additionally, being reminded of a loss did not change their gambling behavior. Dr. Elliot Ludwig states that this result is due to our memories being extremely influential in our decision-making process, even subconsciously. For example, he asserts that people do not take risks when the experience is completely new but will take risks if we have had previous memories of a similar experience. His research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General noted that in casinos there are constantly stimuli priming an individual to be more likely to gamble. Stimuli like the whirring of a slot machine suggest that another person has recently won and thus this persuades the individual that they too could win. The unattended stimuli, the priming, convinces the individual to make the risky decision to gamble. This research and the clip from Focus demonstrate that the effects of priming on our decision making and behavior are often subtle but can have large effects.