social sciences

In defense of Psychology: reading your mind?

Unfortunately, psychology is sometimes associated with mind-reading or fortune-telling. However as a psych student I’m still waiting for the part of the curriculum that contains courses on how to successfully read your mind and speculate on your future. These kinds of assumptions often make it difficult to get taken seriously as a science. But I can guarantee you that psychology fits the current science paradigm, we conduct experiments and, yes, we use statistics. 

Matchbox trick
Though there are some ‘tricks’ that can make people seem like mind readers. One of the oldest is the matchbox trick. You can go ahead and write the following numbers on the white surface of a match box.


Ask people to pick a number, displayed on the match box. People are very likely to pick ‘3’.  So write a ‘3’ on the back of the matchbox, so you can show people afterward that you knew which number they were going to pick.
Now I have to disappoint you, no mind-reading goes into this ‘trick’. People behave according to patterns, and that is what psychologists want to figure out. Because it is incredibly imperative to be able to predict human behavior. Because as physical diseases are still seen as more serious, mental disorders are very real. And what is often forgotten is that physical diseases have a psychological side to them. This is due to the fact that a myriad of diseases can take a toll on our mental health as well.

But back to the ‘mind-reading’ skills. Another trick is used by people in daily lives, horoscopes. Statements made in horoscopes are great because they could be applicable to anyone. Also, the wording used is very interesting as well. Using words or phrases such as ‘could happen’ or  ‘it might be a good idea’ indicate uncertainty, your horoscope doesn’t state things that are going to happen for sure. And statements including could and might are not falsifiable, which means they cannot be seen as theories. So you can go ahead a random horoscope and it will still be applicable to you. However we get attached to the horoscope were supposedly born with, therefore we can come up with a million reasons why only our own horoscope fits. A description that can fit almost anyone is also referred to as a ‘Barnum statement’ (Forer, 1949).
The following three statements are examples of this effect:

  1. You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
  2. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
  3. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.

Most people will feel like these could accurately describe them, in fact, this has been tested in an experiment. And as it turns out, people will reason that these do apply to them.

Just like the matchbox trick there are more ways to ‘mind read’. For example, if I ask you to name a construction tool or a color, you’re more likely to say hammer and red (or blue). That is because our mind is a semantic network, it has been built up by associations. This is where priming becomes important, which can also help guess what others are thinking of. Priming is when I remind you of chairs, so now you think about chairs. The concept of chairs is now ‘activated’ in your semantic network. This could make you quicker at naming other pieces of furniture, such as tables or couches. All of these concepts are associated in our minds.

So in conclusion, no psychologists do not read your mind, people are sometimes predictable. If you’re currently receiving psychological help, or maybe a tip for the future, please tell your psychologist everything that is relevant — because they cannot read your mind.

Forer, B.R. (1949). “The fallacy of personal validation: A classroom demonstration of gullibility”(PDF). Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. American Psychological Association. 44 (1): 118–123.

social sciences

Producer’s influence #1 Priming

You might have heard about it before, subliminal priming. You’re in the movie theater, and for some reason, randomly in the middle of the movie you get this uncontrollable, unexplainable craving for some Cola and popcorn.  They primed you! They flashed the words ‘Hungry? Eat popcorn!’ in the middle of the movie! But the duration of this was so incredibly short that you couldn’t even consciously register the secret message. And guess what happened next? The popcorn and cola sales at the movie theater went up! (O’Barr, 2013).

Sorry. That wasn’t actually true. It was something Mr Vicary in claimed all the way back in 1957. We know now that it’s actually not that easy to secretly trick people into buying things.
Sadly, priming is not that exciting. It works a bit differently, for example, if you see the word ‘spoon’, you will be faster at recognizing words like: ‘fork, knife, plate, cup’. Because those words are all linked together in a semantic network in your brain, and once you are confronted with ‘spoon’, other words will also be activated (Ratcliff, & McKoon, 1988).

Holland and Hendriks  (2005) conducted an interesting experiment on this topic, where they looked at the link between priming and behavioral outcomes. Participants were placed behind a desk and had to fill in a survey, while they were given a biscuit. They were asked to eat this biscuit, which would cause a lot of crumbs to fall down on the desk. And unbeknownst to the participants, a bucket with water mixed with a cleaning product was placed in the same room. The experimenters looked at whether the participants would dust off the desk or not. Of course, they also looked at a different group of participants, this group was not exposed to the cleaning product scent. The participants who were placed in the clean smelling room were more likely to dust off their desk, as opposed to those who were not.

So when can we actually manipulate consumers’ behavioral outcomes? We have already found out that subliminal messaging, as suggested by Vicary, does not work in real life. But actual experimenters have found effects in this department. But! Apparently it should be possible to flash people with subliminal messages, and get them to perform behaviors…. but only if they already had this intention. Strahan, Spencer, and Zanna (2002) found that those who were already thirsty were more likely to drink after being primed on thirst-related words. This is compared to those who were also thirsty and primed with neutral words and those who weren’t thirsty but also primed with thirst-related or neutral words. So in conclusion, when you already have a goal (to drink when your thirsty), and you’re primed, your more likely to go out and achieve this goal. So only those who have an objective can be successfully influenced.

But there is more to subliminal messages than just quick flashes of commands ordering you to get popcorn. There is a new method that many movies and TV series happen to use nowadays. It’s called product placement. This is a form of advertising. A famous Dutch TV drama, called Goede Tijden, Slechte Tijden, likes to include this in their episodes. For example, a yogurt brand will pay a sum of money so that the TV show will have your favorite characters eat this particular type of yogurt. Or, Korean dramas will coincidentally have all characters carry around the same type of phone. Chances are that a smartphone company has payed for product placement.
Liang, Hsiao, and Cheng,  (2015) found that urban romantic dramas (compared to mafia dramas) reflect our daily lives more, and therefore a higher placement effect will be created. Being able to identify with the characters’ lives will also increase this effect. So if you really like a specific character and you can identify with their life, you might end up buying the same popcorn that they were eating in that one episode.


Holland, R. W., Hendriks, M., & Aarts, H. (2005). Smells Like Clean Spirit Nonconscious Effects of Scent on Cognition and Behavior. Psychological Science, 16(9), 689-693.

Liang, A. R. D., Hsiao, T. Y., & Cheng, C. H. (2015). The Effects of Product Placement and Television Drama Types on the Consumer Responses of College Students. Asia Pacific Journal of Tourism Research, 20(11), 1212-1233.

O’Barr, W. M. (2013). ” Subliminal” Advertising. Advertising & Society Review, 13(4).

Ratcliff, R., & McKoon, G. (1988). A retrieval theory of priming in memory.Psychological review, 95(3), 385.

Strahan, E. J., Spencer, S. J., & Zanna, M. P. (2002). Subliminal priming and persuasion: Striking while the iron is hot. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38(6), 556-568.

Photo by Ricardo Benardo