Hack 67. Control Random Thoughts


The rambling nature of our inner thoughts is often perceived as creating an unpredictable random path. You can take advantage of this misperception to guess the thoughts of those around you by increasing the probability that they will focus on whatever you wish.

No stranger to creepy scenes, Edgar Allen Poe relates this one in Murders in the Rue Morgue:

Occupied with thought, neither of us had spoken a syllable for fifteen minutes at least. All at once, Dupin broke forth with these words: "He is a very little fellow, that's true, and would do better for the Theatre des Varietes." "There can be no doubt of that," I replied unwittingly... "Dupin," said I gravely, "this is beyond my comprehension. I do not hesitate to say I am amazed, and can scarcely credit my senses. How was it possible you should know (what) I was thinking of...?"

Have you ever been talking to someone, and your mind wanders off for a little while? Then, you bring up whatever it was that you were thinking about and, lo and behold, the other person was thinking about the exact same thing!

Why does this happen? Can you make it happen? Can you predict what the other person is going to say? More than likely, yes, you can sometimes make it happen, and sometimes you can predict what the other person is going to say. This is especially true if the two of you share a common background.

Mind Control

Our memories are filled with words, thoughts, stories, and so on that are associated with other words, thoughts, and stories. If you want someone to think of a certain topic so that you can read her mind, the easiest way to trick her into thinking what you want her to think is by bringing up a topic that is closely related to the desired topic.

For example, if you want your friend to start thinking about lions and tigers and bears, you might prime her thought process with words that are associated with that themewords such as Wizard of Oz, Dorothy, Toto, or even stripes, since stripes and tigers are highly associated with each other.

All words have a certain frequency of occurrence in written and spoken language. Some words have a very high frequency of occurrence (such as the, it, etc.), while other words have very low frequency of occurrence (such as aardvark). Additionally, some words occur with other words quite frequently (such as salt and pepper or rhythm and blues). In fact, they occur so often with the other words that research has found that people think both words even when only one is said.

By learning these associations, we can process incoming information more quickly. If we hear salt and are already thinking salt and pepper, we are one step ahead and can begin to reach for both before our dinner companion even finishes asking us to pass them.

So, if you want to "control" someone's mind, the trick is simply to know which things occur most frequently together. The more frequent a word is, the more likely someone is to think it. Likewise, the more frequently two words occur together, the more likely one is to think of both words when only one is stated.

Probability and Word Association

Researchers interested in those words that tend to be associated have collected data over the years to see what is normal for us humans. Psychiatrists use knowledge of typical free associations between words as a tool for reading the subconscious. Cognitive psychologists use the same information to map the way the brain processes information.

A huge amount of information is known about cues (the word presented that might lead to an association) and targets (the words thought of after the cue is presented). Table 6-16 shows a sample of word cues and the probability that normal people, such as your friends, will think of particular targets. The table provides a range of good cues and bad cues to give you an idea of how most minds work.

Table Chances of word associations
CueTargetProbability
condomsex.53
bumpysex.01
broccoligreen.25
broccoligross.01
pajamassleep.36
accidentcar.36
accidentoops.01
motherfather.60
mothergoose.02
orthodontistteeth.42
heroSuperman.17
heroBatman.02
statisticsnumbers.26
statisticsboring.03
coleslawfish.01


Information like this is useful for when you want your subject to think of certain words or ideas. With sex, for example, you will have more luck cueing with condom than you will with bumpy.

Table 6-16 draws on the seemingly exhaustive list of typical associations for thousands of words found at http://w3.usf.edu/FreeAssociation/, provided by Nelson, McEvoy, and Schreiber, researchers at the Universities of South Florida and Kansas.


Building a List of Word Associations

Associated ideas and words form slightly different webs of connections in each person, but within groups of people with a shared culture (pop or otherwise) and shared experiences, the networks are similar. To be able to start saying your friends' thoughts out loud (and spooking the heck out of them), you'll need to know the likely associations in your metaphorical corner of the world.

You can conduct a small study to help you determine which words among your friends are most strongly associated with each other. Create a sample of a few representative friends or family members. Make up a list of test words, and ask your sample to say the first thing that comes to mind when you say each word. Words in common phrases or titles work well. Words that elicit thoughts of favorite in-jokes, movies, or songs, though, are the type of words that should work best for use in actual conversation later on.

Your mini-study is a quick way to get a small sample of the same kinds of data that real-world cognitive psychologists use in their research to learn more about thought processes.


If there are some words that many of your friends give in response to a word, you can assume it is strongly associated with the test word. You want words with the highest probability of priming the mental pump toward a predictable outcome.

Why It Works

The human brain is so efficient that it processes words or ideas in the context of whatever words or concepts have been previously over-learned. Research studies have found that when people are asked to state whether a series of letters is a word, they respond more quickly to words that have been primed or preactivated by words that were shown to them just prior to the identification task. For example, if stripes is shown, and then either tiger or lemon, people will respond more quickly for tiger than for lemon.

By talking about words or topics that are closely related to other words or topics, you begin a thought process in your friend's brain in which activation of neurons spreads to neurons that generally fire at the same time. Your brain has learned that certain words and topics almost always occur together, so it knows that when one of the associated words or topics is activated, it should also fire in the regions where those associated words and topics are activated. That way, your thought process can proceed smoothly.

Where Else It Works

This particular mind trick has some risk of failure, especially when the associations that you are relying on are low-probability associations. However, you might just enjoy knowing that you are secretly manipulating others and don't have to make a big show out of it.

We can prime people to do lots of things that seem to just come naturally because they occur so effortlessly and often. For example, it is likely that you can make someone yawn simply by yawning yourself. You might even be able to get a friend to yawn by talking about yawning or sleep. (In fact, as I wrote this, I yawned.) Likewise, if there is something that sounds good to you for dinner, you might be able to get your family members to crave it too by mentioning that kind of food.

You probably have been primed yourself many times. When you are listening to your favorite CD and one song ends, do you start hearing the next song in your head before it even begins? If you know what things someone associates with other things, it becomes relatively easy to predict someone's thoughts after you've primed them. This is partially why married people can often finish each other's sentences.

Where It Doesn't Work

If someone doesn't share your language background, because they speak either a different language or a different dialect, they might not have the same word associations that you have.

It also might not work if a word has several equally likely word associations. For example, if you prime someone with the word hot, some people might start thinking about the weather (hot and cold). Some might think about food (hot dogs). Others might start thinking about people they admire (a hot babe).

What do you think of next when you see the word hot? I knew you were going to say that!

Jill Lohmeier with Bruce Frey




Statistics Hacks
Statistics Hacks: Tips & Tools for Measuring the World and Beating the Odds
ISBN: 0596101643
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2004
Pages: 114
Authors: Bruce Frey

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