What is the Priming Effect?

so_p. What letter is missing from this word? If you thought “u” you’ve probably seen the word “eat” or an image of bread recently. If you’ve been thinking of stabbing a co-worker in the back, then you probably thought “a”. This is the very real effect of priming.

Priming describes how ideas prompt other ideas later on without an individual’s conscious awareness. Psychologists in the 1980s began finding that certain words could lead to the recognition or association with other words more easily than others. When exposed to certain stimuli, such as words or images, your future perceptions and decisions will be influenced by what might seem irrelevant items.

It is due to the perceptual identification in the memory. Just before carrying out a task, our brain activates associations in the memory in anticipation. You will be quicker to produce the word “orange” if you have just seen the word “juice” beforehand, because these are stored together in your memory.  Modern computers operate in a similar way when using “speculative execution” by anticipation our actions, which is what left them vulnerable to the Meltdown and Spectre flaws.



In one study, customers were primed with words representing either high-end retail brands or low-cost ones. In a subsequent task subjects had a stronger preference for products of the high-end brands if they were first exposed to the brand’s name.

In another study, students primed with words such as gray, bald, and wrinkle during a task subsequently walked down a hallway more slowly than those not primed. (There has been some controversy about this study).

Psychologist Kathleen Vohs found that priming subjects with money (with images not bribes!) made them wait longer to ask for help during a difficult task, less willing to help confused participants, and more likely to prefer sitting further away from other participants.

Staff paid more into an “honesty box” for consumed tea and coffee in a kitchen when an image of eyes was placed above the price list, compared to when there was an image of flowers, according to a study in a British university



Bargh, J. A., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 230-244.

Tanya L. Chartrand, Joel Huber, Baba Shiv, Robin J. Tanner; Nonconscious Goals and Consumer Choice, Journal of Consumer Research, Volume 35, Issue 2, 1 August 2008, Pages 189–201

Vohs, Kathleen D., Nicole L. Mead, Miranda R. Goode (2006) The Psychological Consequences of Money. Science

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