The man walked onto the station platform very casually.  Most of the other people around me paid him little or no attention at all, but I found my eyes drawn back to him repeatedly.  In fact, I had to work hard to make sure that he didn’t catch me looking his way a little too often.

I tried to size up the situation.  The group around him were standing too far away to be friends, but they were close enough to suggest they weren’t strangers either.  I guessed they were fellow commuters, familiar with one another, but not with each others’ lives.  They didn’t know what I knew about him.  Instead they had been taken in like so many others by his relaxed air and general bonhomie.

I considered what it was that had first made me recognise him; what unconscious reference had caused me to notice him, fixate my attention on him and trigger that feeling of fear. 

It was several factors, I decided.  Like a simple jigsaw puzzle any one of the elements would have been insufficient, but together they fired up that recognition I’d experienced and made me instantly wary and attentive.  It was the distinctive coffee-coloured hue of his (Asian) skin, his height, the strong physique softened by a considerable paunch, and the back-pack, worn with both straps over the shoulders.  I recalled I’d only ever seen him with that distinctive back-pack.

My unconscious mind had filtered the situation and, within microseconds, made its judgment.  This was the murderer Maninder Kohli!

Except it wasn’t.

I knew that because at the end of the television programme I’d watched about Kholi’s viscious crime and the manhunt for him in India, the police had caught him and he’d been sent to prison (for a very long time).

But primed by the programme. and the powerful emotions it evoked (particularly given that I’m the father of a daughter and he raped and murdered a teenage girl), my unconscious had new data to use in protecting me.

In evolutionary terms this mechanism makes great sense.  It can keep me safe and help me protect my family.  But, as I knew within moments of ‘recognising’ the man at the station, it can also be wrong.

Had I known someone who looked like Kholi I doubt I would have looked at the man in the same way.

So what does all this reveal about consumer behaviour?  Well, the unconscious mind can be easily influenced.  When emotion and uniqueness are combined, particularly if it’s through a recent event, it creates a prime.  The unconscious mind is then on the look-out for elements of the event that have caused that emotion.  When enough are encountered, or sufficiently close approximations of them are, it triggers the emotions experienced on the first occasion as a warning (or incentive in the case of something pleasurable) to act.

Where you can create an emotion and attach your brand or product to it the sensory associations at the time will be mapped onto it and can be deployed to recreate the intended emotions.  That’s how brand logos work.

Philip Graves


  1. anthony lemme

    The brain/bodymind is so fascinating and mysterious. I read about a study where people were shown a picture of people on the subway which showed a large and varied crowd of people. One of the people was holding a knife…and old woman. When asked who was holding the knife after the picture was removed, 60% percent said the black man. The thing was, the black man was very well groomed and obviously a professional and the woman with the knife was on the opposite side of the picture!

    The mind is often a terrible thing to taste!

    Love your new site by the way!


  2. JJ Jalopy

    Wow. Yeah. Our associations are so powerful.

    I think I make the most powerful associations with my sense of smell. Smelling a certain flower, food or perfume can trigger very strong emotions and memories for me.

    Cool stuff. Your writing is always very cohesive. I feel like I add to my understanding of our unconscious behaviour every time I visit.

  3. Duane Cunningham

    Hi Phil,

    Geez! that must have been a bit scary at the time thinking your right there with a murderer!!

    Priming is a fascinating subject and has enormous influence in the sales arena IF you know how to harness the power of priming someone the right way


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  4. Rob Norrthrup

    A similar thing happened to me this week. I turned on the television and saw a creepy pedophile who killed himself through multiple drug addiction being eulogized as though he were some sort of saint. Odd world.


  5. Las Vegas Baby Boomer Dating Success Expert

    Hi Phil,

    what a wonderful telling of the story of your “siting” of a murder on it was not to illustrate the effects of priming. Indeed, this specific consumer behavior post of yours reminds me of the studies which have been done about the reliability and unreliabiltiy of eye-witness testimony, that people will fill in gaps of their recollections.

    Additionally, because you mentioned that the man you saw was Asian, the cross-race/ethnic group unreliability of eye-witness testimony has an even worse record.

    Excellent demonstration and pulling in from the interesting details of your own life with watching television and being the father of a daughter.

    Happy Dating and Relationships,

    April Braswell
    Single Baby Boomer Dating Success Expert

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