In 1996 in New York University, students sat in a room where they were asked to form grammatically correct 4-word sentences from a set of 5 random words.
Having completed the task, each student was sent down the corridor to another room to fill out a form.
The real test, however, wasn’t in that first room. The real focus of the test was the walk to the second room.
Whilst half of the students who participated in the test were handed cards with completely random words, half were handed cards with words associated with the elderly. Words like grey, forgetful, wrinkle, bald and Florida.
Psychologist John Bargh was working on a hunch. He and his team secretly timed each student’s walk from room to room. As Bargh had anticipated, the students who’d been working with the elderly-themed words walked down the corridor significantly slower than the others.
After the test, students were questioned. None of those who’d been given the elderly-themed stack of words had noticed the theme.
They were completely unaware of the impact of the words on their behaviour. In fact, they denied that the speed at which they walked down the corridor could have been influenced by the words they’d seen in the first room. However, they had been subconsciously primed.
Even reading these few sentences about the expirement has primed you in ways you’re not aware of. If someone were to time your actions now – and compare them to other times – it would show that you moved a little slower.
This priming effect experiment has since become famous in behavioral psychology circles as the Florida Effect.
Let’s say that you’re 55 years old. There are 2 gymnasiums in your neighbourhood. One has a membership base of mostly younger people. They run kilometre after kilometre on treadmills, pedal furiously in spin classes and lift enormous weights to the limit of their physical capability. They talk about parties and sport. The sound system pumps out dance music.
The second gym has targeted the over 50s market, the people who don’t like the noise or youth of the first gym. As it turns out, the average age is 75. Members walk leisurely on treadmills and pedal on bikes with resistance set to zero. The music is kept to a low level and is mostly hits from the 50s and 60s. Conversation is about hip replacements, medication and arthritis.
What happens to you as a 55 year old member of each gym?
In the first, you will be subconsciously influenced to act younger, to exercise at a higher speed and to push yourself.
In the second gym, you’ll exercise well within your capabilities. You’ll talk about your knee injury, even though it really hasn’t bothered you for a long time.
As a result of the Florida Effect, each of these gyms will exert an influence on your behaviour long after your session.
On the one hand, you’ll perform tasks with energy and speed (as John Bargh’s experiment showed). But other things are likely to happen. Your interest in learning will be high (new skills, new technology, new music). Your language will contain phrases heard in gym conversations and in songs played on the sound system. You’ll dress as young as you think you can get away with.
On the other hand, your speed will slow. You’ll get less done in your day, but that’s OK because you won’t be inspired to do more. Your conversations will be largely about memories. You’ll consider yourself too old to learn new technology. You’ll wear beige.
For every one of us who is ageing, the lesson is that to feel young, we must immerse ourselves in the influence of youth.
For governments wrestling with the cost of ageing, the solution is clear. Provide facilities for an ageing community, but exert every possible (subconscious) influence to keep the population feeling young.
For brands whose audience is ageing, the solution is to pepper communication with youthful cues, to keep every customer feeling young and alive, and keep the brand relevant.