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How Our Cell Phones Control Our Minds

Simply dialing a phone number puts thoughts in our head

Businesses who don't get enough phone traffic may want to rethink their phone number. This is because when people dial a telephone number, letters corresponding to the numbers they are dialing automatically seep into mind. Dialing 5683 brings up the idea of LOVE and dialing 75463 makes SLIME pop into mind. Even though we may not be aware of it, our actions can mold our thoughts.

In a study published last week in the journal Psychological Science, psychologist Sascha Topolinski asked people to dial strings of digits (e.g., 5683) on a cell phone that shared the same key sequences with real words (e.g., LOVE). Everyone then read words they had unknowingly dialed and words that they had not keyed in. It turned out that people were faster to recognize the words they had dialed relative to the non-dialed words and, the more of a skilled cell phone user a person was, the quicker they recognized the dialed words.

Not only does dialing digits seem to induce the meaning of words that share the same keys (e.g., 5683, LOVE), but people actually prefer dialing numbers that imply positive words (e.g., 37326, DREAM) over numbers that imply negative words (e.g., 75463, SLIME). In a second experiment, people were told that they would be taking part in an ergonomics study of cell phones and asked to dial several numbers and then rate how pleasant an experience it was to dial each number. Unbeknownst to the folks in the study, each number corresponded to either a pleasant or unpleasant word and, sure enough, people preferred dialing numbers that implied positive words over negative words - even though no one suspected that the numbers might be related to actual words.

And, it doesn't stop there. In a final experiment, people were shown to prefer companies whose phone numbers corresponded to words related to their businesses. People preferred a dating agency with a phone number that corresponded to the word "LOVE" and a mortician whose number implied the word "CORPSE" relative to when a company's number was not related to its business. Again, participants had no idea that the numbers they were dialing were associated with particular words.

This research adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that the body drives the mind in subtle ways. For years, scientists have been under the assumption that the mind and body are largely separate entities. Just like the software of a computer can run on virtually any hardware, the separation of mind and body has largely dominated psychology, neuroscience, and western philosophy. Perhaps Descartes put this viewpoint best when he said, "I [am] . . . entirely and truly distinct from my body." But, the last few decades of research tell a different story about the mind-body connection. Out is the idea that the body is a passive vehicle that the mind puts to use. In is the realization that our body influences the contents of our mind in unexpected ways. Indeed, if simply dialing a phone number can shape the contents of our minds, who knows how else our body can exert subtle mind control.

For more on the mind-body connection and how it can be derailed under stress, check out my new book Choke.

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Topolinski, S. (2011). I 5683 You : Dialing Phone Numbers on Cell Phones Activates Key-Concordant Concepts. Psychological Science.

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