One of our favorite subjects is the way marketers can use psychology to manipulate you into doing what they want (we don't think "brainwashing" is too strong a word).
We know what you're thinking: You're far too cynical to fall for the ads you fast forward through on your DVR or the little tricks employed by marketers and politicians to push your subconscious buttons. But are you sure? Because science has found ...
5The Color of a Pill Can Trick You into Thinking It's Working
Remember when Neo got to choose between the red pill and the blue pill? The blue pill would have put him back to sleep in the fake world of cubicles and steaks in the Matrix, where the red pill would wake him up to the real world and its industrial womb factory. You probably just chalked that scene up to another case of Hollywood turning a complicated situation into a simplistic metaphor, but what you probably didn't realize is that you're living out your own little Matrix scenario every time you go to the pharmacy.
"I really hope being swallowed by a mirror is covered by my insurance."
Did you notice how the red pill would let Neo "wake up" to the real world, but the blue pill would let him stay "asleep" in the dream world? Now go to your pharmacy. What color are all of the sleeping pills?
Blue, blue and blue -- if not the package, then the pill itself. That's not coincidence; researchers have found that the color of a pill makes a difference in how it works. In one study, every patient was given the exact same sedative, but some patients received it in a blue pill and others in an orange pill. The blue pill takers reported falling asleep 30 minutes faster, and sleeping 30 minutes longer, than the orange pill takers.
What the hell? It's yet another weird manifestation of the placebo effect. You probably already know that you can give a guy with a headache a Tic Tac and tell him it's medicine, and there's a good chance it will fix his headache just like an aspirin would, for reasons science doesn't completely understand. Well, it turns out that that already illogical and somewhat insane phenomenon is also affected by the color of the pill. The reason is that how you perceive effectiveness affects effectiveness -- and when it comes to stuff you consume, color matters.
So, in a different experiment, subjects were told they were going to get a sedative or a stimulant, when in fact they were getting neither -- all of the pills were placebos. Yet 66 percent of the subjects who took blue pills reported feeling less alert, compared to only 26 percent of those who took pink pills. That's because we've been trained to think that blue = sleep.
Also blue = drowning, and certain types of poisonous reptiles. Sweet dreams!
In a different study, when researchers put various fake medicine packages in front of subjects, the subjects picked certain colors of boxes over others. Warm colors like brown and red were perceived as more potent, especially if the shades were darker. Green and yellow, on the other hand, might as well have been 7Up-flavored Tic Tacs as far as the subjects were concerned. And this is why heart medicines are often red and brown, while skin medicines are yellow and sleeping pills are often blue or green. Painkillers, on the other hand, are often white ... maybe to remind us of opium? We're not sure.
All we remember is consuming ghosts whole, and then the long silence.
Wait, it gets even stupider. Color associations are also cultural. Maybe in America blue is a calming, peaceful color, but in Italy it's associated with the national soccer team. So researchers found that, rather than making him drowsy, a blue pill would send an Italian man screaming and singing and rioting into the night.
4"Priming" Can Play Us Like Puppets
Quick: When's the last time you bought flowers at a grocery store? Never? Yet when you walk through the door at most grocery chains, what's the first thing you see? Here's what's right inside the door at Whole Foods:
And here's Kroger:
What the hell? These are grocery stores, people are there to buy food. Why would they lead off with a fringe product that 99 percent of the shoppers probably won't even look at? It has to do with the subtle science of mind control known as priming.
Yes, it is entirely possible to manipulate people into certain behaviors without them knowing it. We're not talking about subliminal suggestion, the disproven gimmick that claimed it could make people buy products by inserting hidden messages in movies. No, the real technique is priming, and it's as sinister as a windowless white van at a playground.
"It's goddamn tangerines and muesli again. That van guy is the worst."
The idea behind the flowers is that, as we've touched on elsewhere, hitting you with a product that is highly perishable yet fresh will "prime" you into thinking of freshness, and that you will carry that "freshness" mindset with you all the way back to the discount meat case. It sounds like bullshit -- humans don't connect completely unrelated ideas like that, right? Yet it's confirmed pretty much every time they test it.
Sometimes "priming" is as simple as finding that people will keep a room cleaner if it smells like disinfectant -- that subtle reminder is enough to make people think, "This is a clean room, I should keep it clean." But when you see how far they can take this, it gets weird.
"Can we try to keep the murder room confined to one area, please?"
In one study, scientists instructed volunteers to form sentences using words associated with old people, under the guise that it was a language proficiency test. So, one sentence could have been "The Depends were too elderly (in Florida.)" That's just an example we made up. So these hip, presumably liberal young college students were pumped with terms associated with the elderly, and guess what happened next?
No, they didn't hike up their pants to their nipples and start watching Jay Leno. But as they left the study, they walked slower than the students who were given neutral words earlier. The students primed to think of elderly stereotypes took on characteristics they associated with the elderly. Seriously, this happened. And you can get the same result in infinite ways; in another experiment, those who were primed with words conveying rudeness (like "aggressively," "bold," "rude," "bother," "disturb" and "intrude") interrupted the experimenter more frequently during a conversation after the tests.
They also found a clipboard embedded in their foreheads later on, but that was probably just a coincidence.
Wait, it gets stupider than that. In yet another study, researchers set up a devious experiment where students accidentally bumped into a klutz on the way to the session. Their bump partner held either a hot or a cold drink, which he or she asked the unknowing patsy to hold for a second while they collected their shit. When the students actually got to the study, they were asked to rate a hypothetical person's personality. The subjects who had held an iced tea earlier were more likely to call the fake persona "cold" or "selfish" than the students who held a cup of hot coffee. Some base association with cold and warmth at the subconscious level was enough to affect their conscious judgment.
"Hmm. I'd say the person was fuzzy and likely to consume their young."
So the next time you see an ad on TV, take a moment to notice the show or scene preceding the ad. Because advertisers are paying more for placement that will prime the viewer. For instance, OnStar ran ads for its emergency vehicle service during a commercial break that came right after a car crash scene in The Bourne Supremacy. It was worth it, because studies show that that little bit of priming makes people twice as likely to buy the product.