It's pretty obvious that you can tell a lot about a person from the way she outfits her home or office. But what you may not know is that your own behavior can be subtly influenced by her choice of items when you're in that space — without your even realizing it. In studying this effect, Christian Wheeler, associate professor of marketing, has found that certain types of objects can in fact elicit very specific kinds of behavior.
Wheeler and three other researchers, including Aaron Kay and Lee Ross from Stanford's psychology department, carried out a number of studies in which they exposed individuals to objects common to the domain of business, such as boardroom tables and briefcases, while another group saw neutral objects such as kites and toothbrushes. They then gave all of the participants tasks designed to measure the degree to which they were in a cooperative or competitive frame of mind.
In every case, participants who were "primed" by seeing the business objects subsequently demonstrated that they were thinking or acting more competitively. The effect was the strongest when they had to respond in situations that were deliberately ambiguous. When questioned, however, participants denied that being exposed to business-related objects had influenced their behavior in any way.
"People are always trying to figure out how to act in any given situation, and they look to external cues to guide their behavior particularly when it's unclear what's expected of them," Wheeler says. "When there aren't a lot of explicit cues to help define a situation, we are more likely to act based on cues we pick up implicitly." Simple exposure to business-related objects, it turns out, can activate the "cognitive components" that are associated with competitive behavior, he says.
For example, participants who had previously looked at pictures of business-relevant materials completed more word fragments, such wa_, _ight, and c__p___tive, using competition-related words — such as war (vs. was), fight (vs. tight), and competitive (vs. cooperative) — than those in the neutral condition. Such participants also evaluated an ambiguously written scenario involving two men who are undergoing a certain degree of conflict as being much more about competition than cooperation.
Another study transferred the effect to the real world. Participants were given $10 and asked to decide how much they were willing to share with a partner. The catch was that the partner could refuse any offer perceived to be too low, in which case neither participant would receive anything. While subjects exposed to neutral pictures generally split the money 50-50, only 33 percent of those who looked at business-related objects did, showing that they had become less cooperatively oriented. Results were similar when participants were exposed in the experiment room to actual business-related objects, such as a briefcase and an executive pen, as opposed to a backpack and a wooden pencil.
The effect was lessened, however, when the strategy game that participants were asked to play was deliberately depicted as being cooperative in nature. "This shows that when people are given an explicit context for how to behave, there is less room for business primes to exert an influence," Wheeler explains.
"These are pretty big effects with pretty minor manipulations," he says. The fact that participants were unaware that their behavior had been influenced even when this fact was pointed out to them in the debriefing after the experiment is also significant. "We're simply not conscious of how many of the things all around us affect our behavior," he notes. This can be true, he says, even if we are not simply receiving the messages through subliminal tricks such as rapid image flashing in advertising, which is designed to circumvent our conscious awareness — but when we are seeing the objects right in front of us, as the participants in the study demonstrated.
Other research has shown that words, concepts, and images can subliminally influence people's behavior, but Wheeler's is the first experimental work to show that objects can, as well. One implication of these studies, he notes, is that businesses may want to take a more serious look at how their office decor can be designed to encourage either competition or cooperation.