Author Archives: linnis

The Effect of Priming on Gambling in Focus (2015) and Research

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.

Childhood Amnesia

Imagine this, you are sitting at your family’s dinner table with your new fiancé. As with many long term relationships, at this point you are absolutely convinced that your partner knows everything there is to know about you. They know your worst life experiences, descriptions of your relationships with various family members, and of course all of your most embarrassing memories! Yes, even the most embarrassing ones. You are sitting confidently at that table knowing you have hidden nothing from your fiancé. You are basking in the peace of the polite and jovial conversation when your mom pipes up, speaking to your fiancé, “Have you heard of their incident in preschool?” Your fiance laughs, denying that they knew of any incident in preschool. Your mother then proceeds to describe how in preschool, when you were 3 years old you ran up to the recently crowned “Student of The Week” classmate and bit them. Some blood was drawn and parents were called. You sit there at dinner, suddenly  mortified.. How embarrassing and childish! Not cute. Your mom insists to your fiance that you remember this incident you’re just denying it. Why can’t you remember?

You not being able to remember this event in your early childhood is due to something called childhood or infantile amnesia. The phenomenon was identified by Miles in 1893. Today, the APA describes childhood amnesia as when an adult has very few memories from ages three to seven years old. Additionally, do you find yourself remembering more from the age of seven moving on towards your later years? This is because after age seven our autobiographical memories suddenly become more accurate and detailed. This explains your experience struggling to remember the biting incident, however there is more to explored.

Researchers have been striving to see the explanation for childhood amnesia for some time now. Freud himself weighed in on the topic many years ago. Years ago, Freud blamed it on children’s repressed psychosexual desires and past traumas. Also troubling is that much of the research that was done about childhood amnesia never interviewed or tested any children prior to the 1980s. That has since changed and we have been slowly earning more about the topic through using children in our research. In 2004, Bauer determined that forgetting rates in infancy, preschool, and early childhood can be seen through neuroimaging that depicts the possible neuro-chemical changes. These make those early formed memories more vulnerable to consolidation and long term memory failures. Another study believes that once you fully develop your language skills then those early memories become unable to verbalize because of that new language development. To me this is the most plausible theory because as we’ve learned this semester our brain loves to be as efficient and simple as possible. It makes sense to me to get rid of those memories so that our brains can learn and process language easier.

I believe that these studies and the discussion around childhood amnesia is both extremely interesting and could be extremely important. There is likely a child out there that insists that a trauma occurred to them, only to be dismissed or embraced depending on their caregiver’s opinions about the accuracy and reliability of a child’s memory. Additionally, I liked that this article included some information about the use of neuroimaging in their research. It will be interesting to see if neuroimaging explores childhood amnesia further in the coming years.

To close out my post, here’s a semi-obnoxious graphic! Technically this applies to childhood amnesia!

Image result for remembering childhood

Ps. I was the kid in the story! I just don’t have a fiancé to be embarrassed in front of yet!


Bauer, P. (n.d.). Oh Where, Oh Where Have Those Early Memories Gone?: A Developmental Perspective on Childhood Amnesia. Retrieved March 31, 2018, from

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Our recent discussions about the cognitive process of memory had me thinking about a certain movie I saw many years ago,  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). **Spoilers ahead if you have not seen it and might want to*** The film follows a man named Joel whose girlfriend of two years left him abruptly after a fight. She then completely disappears from his life. The sudden breakup greatly upsets Joel and he voices his distress to his sister and her husband. His sister then reveals to him that the woman he dated for so long had a procedure to erase all memories of Joel from her mind. Now angry that she would want to completely forget him Joel seeks out the very same procedure.

For the company to retrieve the memories to be forgotten they ask Joel to bring in to the office every item he associates with Clementine. Then they present Joel with each object and ask him to recall the memory and feelings associated with it. By this process of association, the company then maps out on an image of his brain the location of each memory. Later in the film, Joel is sedated and technicians get to work individually deleting every memory at each of those locations. During the procedure, Joel becomes consciously aware that they are deleting his memories of Clementine; both the memories filled with joy and the memories filled with pain. He attempts to wake himself up and reverse the procedure, but he does not succeed. Inside the last remaining memory, the memory where they first met, Clementine tells Joel to meet her in Montauk. The next morning, Joel wakes up from the procedure, remembering nothing about Clementine or that he had undergone the procedure in the first place. Soon, he finds himself ditching work to go to Montauk, a beach town, despite it being a cold winter day. He meets Clementine again. She states she felt the need to go there today. The pair becomes friends again, only to realize later that they had been lovers with an unhappy ending after finding their records of the procedure. Despite the fear the relationship could go the same way, they resolve to try again.

This film does an excellent job at conveying how our memory is a complicated system. For example, the chronological order of the story is fragmented and disordered to demonstrate how our storage and retrieval systems are. According to David Hartley, a phenomenological psychologist, when we perceive a stimulus we automatically associate it with memories, feelings, and related thoughts. These then gets attached to the memory, creating a retrieval path including those associations. Later these associations can help us jump from one memory to another, which is why the story line of Joel’s memories appears fragmented. They are out of order to emphasize Joe’s associations between the memories.

This idea that there are important associations between memories that guide our process of retrieval could be why it is so difficult to forget negative memories. Even in instances of repression they are never truly gone. This movie makes me curious if with modern technology could we someday create a process to erase parts of a person’s memory, while leaving other aspects untouched. It would be difficult to test out ethically, but this could be monumental for individuals suffering from PTSD for example. Traumatic memories can greatly interrupt these individual’s lives and if we could create a procedure to erase that negative memory that could be incredibly powerful.

According to a February 2015 feature on the American Psychological Association’s website, there is research being done to make it possible for people to forget traumatic memories. They have had success with mice exposed to a loud noise. These mice had surgically installed plexiglass into their brains so the researchers can observer fluorescent neurotransmitters in action. They gave the mice a drug that blocks the proteins increased in amygdala after a fear response. The result? The mice did not learn or remember the loud noise when it was repeated after the drug exposure. It is unclear what this could mean for humans and of course, more research needs to be done, but could forgetting a traumatic memory be possible in the distant future? I believe it can be and someday the idea of forgetting a series of memories won’t just be a plot point in a fantastic movie.

The Absence of Fear

As some of you likely know National Public radio produces a variety of podcasts. My favorite, Invisibilia, is a podcast that exists to explain the psychology behind our everyday behaviors with case studies and research. In season one episode two, the hosts explore the feeling of fear, where it comes from, and what happens when someone does not experience it.

The program begins by arguing that today people are experiencing more fear in their daily lives than ever before. This point is emphasized with a story about an environmental psychologist, Dr. Roger Hart, who followed around a large sample of children in a small town in Vermont to see how far they could go from their homes. When this study was done in the 1970s children as young as four years old could travel unsupervised for generous distances documented by Roger Hart on a map. By age ten, some children could travel the entire town unsupervised, at the time in history it seemed parents did not fear things like shootings or abduction. Recently, Dr. Hart discovered that children in that same town were only allowed to walk unsupervised in their own yard though statistically the crime rate and other variables in the town remain virtually the same.

The host of the program asserts that statistically crime rates are at the lowest levels ever nationally, however more and more Americans are modifying their behaviors based on the more constant presence of fear. Therefore, the presence of fear is influencing our decision making. Dr. Ralph Adolphs, professor of psychology at Caltech, stated that our overall fear threshold or how much fear we experience daily was set at a high level. Naturally, our body is going to perceive some stimuli and possible threats and be wrong, false positives as the program calls them. This adaptation worked well in ancient times when there was more danger present in the everyday. However, Dr. Adolphs insists that today fear is experienced more often, with more false alarms than before, and influences our decisions more than necessary.

In our textbook we learned that specific areas of the brain are responsible for different functions. Through localization data it was determined that the area of the brain responsible for producing a fear response through a circuit of neurological connections is called the amygdala. The amygdala perceives what stimuli should be considered a threat. However, what happens when the brain is damaged, and a person cannot experience fear? The hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller interviewed neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, Antonio D’Mazzio, who worked with a woman named SM. SM was physically incapable of experiencing fear. Dr. D’Mazzio described how by looking at SM you could not tell that she had this condition however, through neuroimaging like PET and MRI scans they were able to determine that she suffers from a disease called, Urbach-Wiethe. An incredibly rare disease, the sufferers have calcified masses on their amygdala. In SM’s case her amygdala are completely covered. This causes her to be biologically incapable of experiencing fear.

At first, to me this condition sounded like a super power, but as explained by SM’s case it is extremely dangerous. Without the sense of fear she has been taken advantage of in the past at the worst she has been held at knife and gunpoint. Scientists have tried to expose her to fearful things to no reaction and even conducted an experiment to condition her to experience fear, all to no result. The only positive of her situation is that because she cannot conceptualize that she was threatened in her past she has not had any past bad situations. In fact, when asked if she was usually happy SM said, “9 times out of 10, yes I’m happy.”

This podcast, the stories, and research it presented demonstrates topics covered so far in our class. It shows that areas of the brain are specialized and have different cognitive functions, that damage to them can prove their function (localization), and that there is biological basis for our decision making or cognitive skills. In SM’s case her lack of fear causes her to perceive every stimulus as not a threat. By examining case studies like SM’s and through techniques like neuroimaging and cognitive tasks we can learn more about our thoughts, where they come from, and how we might prevent them from controlling our behavior in maladaptive ways.

Spiegel, Alix, and Lulu Miller. “Fearless.” Invisibilia, season 1, episode 2,