An experience most of us are familiar with: You’ve just bought something new, whether it be a car, a backpack, a sports jersey with a particular player’s number, or even a new brand of reading glasses, and though you found it independently and thought it was fairly unique at the time, now you’re seeing it everywhere.
Has everyone else decided to buy this thing at the same time as you? Hive mind? Have you prompted a rash of popularity? No, of course not. It’s simply that now that you’ve taken particular notice of this item, your mind is primed for it. Had you bought a different car make or a different jersey number, that’s the item you’d be noticing all over the place. The item hasn’t become more prevalent; you’ve simply become more predisposed to notice it.
In a study called “Disgust, creatureliness and the accessibility of death-related thoughts,” by Cathy R. Cox, Jamie L. Goldenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and David Weise, experimenters found that people primed with disgusting pictures were more likely to draw upon death-related thoughts than participants primed by neutral pictures. For example, those first shown images of a bloody finger and a dirty toilet were more likely to finish the words SK_ _ _ and COFF_ _ as SKULL and COFFIN than those shown images of a book and a chair, who were more likely to finish them as SKILL and COFFEE. In other words, disgusting images prompt thoughts of death, which causes people to more readily fill in the blanks with death-related ideas.
Intriguing connection between death and disgust aside (horror writers, meet me in the comments!) (for the interested, the nonfiction book That’s Disgusting by Rachel Herz is a nice starting place), this outcome seems to enforce the instinctual knowledge most people have: that our thoughts can be guided or prompted by specific images, words, and associations. I think of these things as “thought triggers.” How, then, can writers use this quirk of the human brain to our advantage, and can it ever become a detriment to our work? [Read more…]