The Other Olympic Legacy

In his book, ‘Think Fast, Think Slow’ , Nobel prize winning author Daniel Kahneman writes about a fascinating experiment carried out at New York University by psychologist, John Bargh.

A group of  18-22 year old students were selected at random and asked to create a sentence from four words (like “finds, he, it yellow instantly” for example). For half the group, words loosely associated with old age were included in the selection – words like grey, wrinkle, bald and Florida. The other half had a different set of words without this association.   When they’d completed the exercise, they were asked to go to another classroom, where there would be other tests to do.

The researchers then sat down to analyse the data they’d collected, but they didn’t even look at the papers filled out by the students. You see, the exercise wasn’t really part of the experiment at all. What the researchers were really interested in was the speed at which the students travelled from one classroom to the other. Unbeknown to them, the researchers were measuring the speed at which the two groups of students walked, and what they discovered was truly remarkable:

Those students exposed to words which are obliquely associated with old age acted as if  they were older themselves. They walked significantly more slowly than the group exposed to a more neutral selection of words. Remember the words used, wrinkle, bald, grey and Florida.  There was nothing overt there like old, arthritis, crippled or disabled. The students  weren’t asked to imagine what it would be like to be old and infirm. Old age wasn’t mentioned at all. And yet mere exposure to words which might be subconsciously linked to the ageing process caused them to walk slower. When questioned later, none of the students reported noticing the theme in the words, and none considered that this theme could have impacted on their subsequent behaviour. Isn’t that astonishing?

As I write this, the Olympic Games in London has just come to an end, and I’m sad. Not just because it was a fantastic sporting spectacle, but because for two solid weeks it was as if bad news had suddenly stopped happening. News programmes were dominated by Olympic success and newspapers devoted page after page to medal winning success. If there was bad stuff happening, we didn’t really get to hear about it.
What an incredible breath of fresh air.

For most of the year though , the media is not really interested in good news at all. What it is interested in is attracting readers and viewers, and for reasons I can’t even begin to comprehend, research shows that people tend to gravitate towards bad news.  Economic crises, unemployment, war, famine, health scares, extreme weather, natural disasters, crime, violence, riots…they’re all events to be spotlighted and magnified by the media in its quest for more readers and viewers. Meanwhile every day, a huge amount of positive and exciting news either goes unreported, or doesn’t get nearly the coverage it deserves. And this matters. It matters a lot.

If we go back to John Bargh’s experiment, look what happened when people were exposed to words and thoughts even peripheral to something potentially negative – old age.  They acted as though they were physically affected by the negative implications of old age themselves, even though they weren’t. They started to walk more slowly, but weren’t aware of it and certainly wouldn’t have been able to tell you why. The effect was probably short-lived, but the stimulus was both weak and brief.

Now imagine for a moment, the impact of a constant and unrelenting bombardment of bad news and negativity courtesy of the media. This isn’t some light-weight, subtle and short-term exposure to a few words that might be loosely associated with something negative – it’s a full blown heavy assault. Everything is crap, and you’re stuck right in the middle of it. How do you think we react to that  – even without consciously thinking about it?

We are told that things are bad and guess what happens – we act as though things are bad! We start to ‘walk’ more slowly, and the worse we’re told things are, the slower we ‘walk’. And pretty soon, everyone gives in and starts walking slowly as well. You can apply this to whatever piece of bad news you like, but in economic terms, we’re told that everyone is becoming poorer and so we feel poorer too. We start to act as if we are poorer by spending less money.  We adopt a poverty mentality. Others see us doing this and decide that they must be poorer as well and cut  their spending.  Pretty soon we’re all poorer have less money to spend. It all becomes so depressingly self-fulfilling.

Those Olympic athletes I mentioned earlier put a great deal of time, effort and research into ensuring that they are fuelled by the right nutrients – that they steer clear of the sort of junk that will pollute their body and blunt their performance. Those of us whose successful outcomes rely more upon the cerebral than the physical should be no less vigilant. It’s quite clear that the  psychological ‘food’ we consume will have a massive impact on our thoughts, actions and the results we ultimately achieve.

If you found yourself feeling better and more positive during the Olympics, then maybe our sporting success was only part of the reason. Perhaps it was just as much about what was missing from your cerebral diet as what had been added to it. And if you believe that to be the case, it could be worth extending the diet a little longer.

You can’t extend the Olympics, but you can stop watching the News and reading the newspapers. If World War III is declared, a comet is set to destroy the earth, or the pound is devalued to parity with the Zimbabwean dollar you’ll get to hear about it soon enough.  Pretty much everything else you can live without, and be a lot happier, healthier and more effective for not being exposed to it.

Let’s all walk a bit faster!

3 thoughts on “The Other Olympic Legacy

  1. Paul Faulkner

    I could not agree more with your comments and would include media crap like all the soaps. I bought my wife a TV years ago and placing it in our bedroom persuaded her that this would be the perfect location for her to watch misery and rows as much as she liked ”without depressing me to death”. It worked. Now we have the Jeremy Kyle show, same thing, different angle. I now understand why the media used to be forever putting down anyone who had achieved anything, remember Georgie Best. ”Give em what they want to read” shouts the editor. It will help them stay with their depression longer, it’s a more comfortable place than making the scary decision to escape and grow. Congratulations John, good stuff.

  2. John Taylor

    My wife and l lived and worked overseas, mostly in Africa & the Middle East for almost 40 years. For most of that time there was no TV service available and newspapers arrived days late. When we came back to UK we found TV simply unwatchable – a few enjoyable programmes but mostly dreary, over- excited, low life, depressing flimflam. And that was just the news. So we gave up the telly, keep up with the world via The Economist and buy the Telegraph once a week (on Saturdays, largely for the sudoku). You are spot on with your comment that anything really important will be mentioned to you anyway.

    Switch off and you’ll cheer up. Promise!

    1. John Harrison

      Excellent advice. I think breaking the habit is the hardest bit and living overseas did that for you. If we all had a total media break for a month and then came back to it, we’d be shocked by what we were previously willingly consuming.


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