In the early 20th century, the world was captivated by a mathematical horse called Clever Hans. He could apparently perform basic arithmetic, keep track of a calendar and tell the time. When his owner, Wilhelm von Osten, asked him a question, Hans would answer by tapping out the correct number with his hoof.
Eventually, it was the psychologist Oskar Pfungst who debunked Hans’ extraordinary abilities. He showed that the horse was actually responding to the expectations of its human interrogators, reading subtle aspects of their posture and expressions to work out when it had tapped enough. The legend of Hans’ intellect was consigned to history. But history, as we know, has a habit of repeating itself.
For the last few decades, psychologists have been using a technique called priming. With subtle hints of words or concepts, they can trigger impressive changes in behaviour. Words of cleanliness can make people behave more morally. Words related to age can slow their bodies. Words of power sharpen our mental abilities. All of these studies have suggested that our behaviour is influenced by subtle things that lie beneath the watch of our conscious awareness.
Read the whole story: Discover Magazine