Why do some ideas prompt other ideas later on without our conscious awareness?
What is priming?
Priming, or, the priming effect, occurs when an individual’s exposure to a certain stimulus influences their response to a subsequent prompt, without any awareness of the connection. These stimuli are often related to words or images that people see during their day-to-day lives.
Where this bias occurs
To illustrate priming in its simplest form, we can look at word association tasks. If you are first presented with the word “doctor” a moment later, when presented with a list of unrelated words, you will recognize “nurse” much faster than “cat.” Unconsciously, your brain makes the link between the two medical workers, as the two are closely related.
The priming effect is also commonly found when you try to remember a song’s lyrics. If the lyrics are ambiguous and you struggle to make them out, your brain will fill in the missing information as best as it can—usually by making use of information that you have been primed to remember. Thus, you may hear different lyrics than what is being sung because of the priming effect.
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Priming can have a tremendous impact on our decision-making and behavior. Studies examining the effect have shown that we can be primed to behave in all sorts of ways stemming from what we have read, watched, and heard.
Psychologist and professor at Yale University, Dr. John Bargh, demonstrated the effects of priming in a famous unscrambling task. Students were placed into three conditions, unscrambling sentences reflecting either aggression, patience, or positivity. After completing the task, participants were told to wait for the researcher to verify their answers. Dr. Bargh and the research team found that those who unscrambled sentences relating to aggression were the most frustrated by the delay, whereas the students who were given sentences relating to patience or positivity were not bothered by the wait time. This study can be used to demonstrate the strength of priming. Proving that our actions and behavior can be altered by the information we are exposed to.1
Priming can also function on a systemic level, popular media decides what stories we are exposed to and what flies under the radar. We can be primed to hold all sorts of beliefs that may not only be inaccurate but also harmful. For one, the media plays an important role in maintaining or challenging bias. In a study by John Sonett and colleagues, they examined the news coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the racially biased reporting during this time. Specifically calling out the combination of visual and verbal cues, the researchers found that major news platforms primed racial stereotypes in their delivery and images that they chose to feature.8 Priming people with racially biased information will shape their future interactions with various ethnic groups. Inaccurate media coverage that is guided by implicit racism can have major implications for the groups who are victims of judgment. This can affect employment opportunities, healthcare, interpersonal relationships, and beyond.
However, priming isn’t always negative. In the corporate world, leaders and managers are looking for new ways to intrinsically motivate their employees. While this can be achieved in multiple ways, studies show that when motivation comes from the individual (intrinsic) we can observe sustained change in behavior.9 Fieldwork led by Alexander D. Stajkovic and colleagues found that when a CEO primed his team with emails that contained achievement-related words (ex: prevail, accomplish, master), effectiveness rose by 15%, and efficiency rose by 35% over the workweek. An added bonus is that priming imposes no additional costs to the company, yet is an evidence-based method for a boost in motivation.10
How it affects product
Priming typically plays an integral role in marketing campaigns for companies with recognizable brands, the priming effect can be used to exploit how people think in order to increase sales. Indeed, companies can activate or bring certain associations into the memory of consumers to make them more receptive to the product the company wishes to sell. This process is called a “behavioral pump” and can dramatically influence consumer decision-making. Without an awareness of how the priming effect impacts their purchasing habits, consumers can fall victim to the marketing techniques of big companies.
We can find many examples of brand priming in our day-to-day experiences. A simple example would be a bakery leaving its front door open so that passersby can smell the delectable baked goods and follow the trail inside. Colors can also be used as primes as we make various implicit connections. To illustrate, red is often associated with strong emotion and passion, whereas blue is associated with the sensation of calm. For this reason, activewear brands may choose to feature red in their marketing, in order to invigorate their audience and get them motivated to hit the gym.
Priming and AI
Applied to the use of artificial intelligence, priming can be quite advantageous and efficient. When using AI chatbots or natural language processing we are constantly feeding it prompts, and thus, providing it with more and more contextual information. In doing so we are actually priming the system for its next response. If you are to start a conversation with a chatbot about highly rated restaurants in Italy, you will not have to restate the location when you ask for top tourist attractions, the system is now primed based on the initial request.
Recommendation systems are another example of our ability to prime AI. Most streaming platforms include a “for you” section, with movie/music/post recommendations that are based on media that you have already consumed. In short, we are priming the AI to accurately suggest based on our taste. Certain platforms will even include a percentage to indicate how similar the content is compared to the data it has collected from your watch history. Certain cell phones are even embedded with shortcuts that prompt you to visit frequently used applications given the time of day. For example, if you routinely check your social media at lunchtime, your phone may send you a notification around 12 PM, providing you a direct root to the app. Artificial intelligence can be primed by our habits to make our interactions with technology efficient and simple.
Why it happens
Psychologists have found that units—also referred to as schemas—of information are stored in our long-term memory.2 These schemas can be activated by sights, smells, and sounds, and when triggered, memories become easier to access. Priming suggests that certain schemas are activated in unison, which leads to related or connected units of information being activated at the same time. Once related schemas are activated and more accessible, it becomes easier for us to draw the connection between the two. Thus, in the future, we respond faster with related information when a unit is activated. For example, the schemas related to rainstorms and slick roads may be linked in our memories. As a result, when we drive and it is raining, the memory of slick roads comes to mind, leading us to slow down and take precaution.
Simply put, The more that these schemas are recalled in unison, the stronger the connection, leading to faster recall of the two concepts. There are numerous types of priming that can occur. Each one works in a specific way that produces different effects:
Positive and Negative Priming
This form of priming influences our processing speeds. Positive priming makes us process information faster and reduces the time required for memory retrieval. As discussed in the doctor/nurse example, positive priming relies heavily on connections between different stimuli. Negative priming, on the other hand, slows down information processing in our minds by requiring us to focus on a stimulus that we previously ignored. For example, if we are playing tic-tac-toe with our friend after playing a couple of rounds as “X” it will be harder to focus on being “O” if you decide to switch roles.
Semantic priming is also associated with the doctor/nurse example, as it occurs when we associate words in a logical or linguistic way.
This variation of priming occurs when a stimulus and response are paired repeatedly. Due to pairing, we become more likely to act or think a specific way each time the stimulus appears.
Perceptual priming takes place when stimuli have similar forms. For example, the word “goat” will provoke a fast response when it is near the word “boat” because the two words are perceptually similar.
Why it is important
Being aware of priming can both mitigate this cognitive bias’ negative impact and enable us to make use of its helpful effects. Priming can influence our behavior in ways that can be harmful to those around us. No one likes to be considered judgemental or be accused of holding biases, yet sometimes the effects of priming are strong enough for associations to appear subconsciously, causing us to act and speak in ways we normally wouldn’t. With an awareness of the priming effect, we can remain conscious of how previous experiences may influence our present decision-making.
In considering this cognitive bias’ potentially helpful effects, we can make priming work for us! This bias can work to our advantage in improving numerous cognitive functions, such as our reading comprehension skills, our listening skills, and our ability to process information quickly. Say, for example, you need to read a long paper for your 8 AM class, and you already have an understanding of the topic because you have been studying it all year. Your existing knowledge will act as a prime for this paper, allowing you to read through it a lot faster without scrutinizing every word. Priming can even impact some physical skills, such as our walking speed. Thus, it is in everyone’s best interest to develop an awareness of how the priming effect works. As discussed, priming can help us to become more productive in our daily tasks, simply by reading or viewing motivating language and content, it is a small task to implement in our routines that can take us a long way.
How to avoid it
Though completely avoiding priming may be impossible given the way in which we subconsciously process information and develop habits, we can certainly develop an awareness of how this bias affects our lives. In doing so, we may be able to catch ourselves relying on existing information, or primes, and mitigating its most harmful effects.
Additionally, it may not be beneficial to avoid it entirely. We are often overloaded with tasks, leaving our mental resources depleted. While relying too heavily on priming has been shown to have some negative effects, we can use it to create positive mental shortcuts. We can make use of existing research on the subject to find ways to prime our brains to create positive mannerisms and characteristics. Indeed, researchers have explored how the priming effect can incite positive changes in our emotions, behaviors, and general thought processes.
Researchers John Wryobeck and Yiwei Chen have found that the priming effect can subconsciously facilitate individuals’ health behaviors in their everyday environment. Their experiment is similar to the one that was previously mentioned, in which students were asked to unscramble sentences. Some students were given sentences that promoted a healthy and active lifestyle, while others were given sentences that did not. The students that were primed by sentences about healthy lifestyles were found to be more likely to take the stairs when going to class, unlike the other students who were found to be more likely to take the elevator. This experiment demonstrates that when put to good use, priming can enable us to become healthy and more active.3
A study from a British university provides another example of how the priming effect can be used in a positive manner. The study examined the effect of placing an image of watchful eyes on a collection box in the university’s coffee lounge. The eyes caused students to pay nearly three times as much for their drinks than they would have without the image. The findings from this study provided the first evidence that the social cues of being watched can influence people to change their behavior—in this case, for the better. Indeed, making use of the priming effect to ameliorate how people act is one way to extract the positive features of this cognitive bias.4
How it all started
The priming effect has a long history in psychological literature. Since the early 1980s, researchers have studied priming by considering how exposure to certain types of information can influence how we behave and think. The earliest work on priming focused on how exposure to specific primes altered social impressions, as well as how they affected emotions and other mental processes. Among the earliest researchers to approach the topic of priming were Bargh and Pietromonaco in 1982, Fazio and colleagues in 1983, and Smith and Branscomb in 1987.5
The results of these initial studies demonstrated that we do, in fact, appear to utilize specific social knowledge in our judgments, even when this arises from unrelated and irrelevant sources. For example, in Bargh and Pietromonaco's study, they found that exposing participants to words related to hostility made them more likely to judge descriptions of individuals as more hostile in a later task.11 A great deal of the focus from early priming research remained concentrated on examining the processes by which priming affects social impressions. Over time, the goals of priming research shifted to include a broader scope of its effects. In the present day, priming effects in psychological research encompass a highly diverse set of phenomena, such as political orientation, consumer habits, and racial bias. The effects of priming are widespread, and the boundaries in research continue to be explored.
Example 1 – Consumer preferences
A study by Chartrand and colleagues provides a clear example of the priming effect in action. In the study, consumers were primed with words representing either high-end retail brands or low-cost ones. In a later task, the consumers were found to have a stronger preference for products of the high-end brands if they had been exposed to the brand’s name during the priming stage. For example, if a study participant had been primed with words representing a high-end retail brand such as Gucci, this participant would be more likely later on to have a preference for the brand.
This study presents evidence suggesting that brands’ goals can be activated by situational cues that lead consumers to make decisions unconsciously. Indeed, the study, therefore, challenges the notion that mental functioning must be conscious by presenting a case where the priming effect leads our mental functioning to occur through unconscious processing.6
Example 2 – Money and Decision Making
The priming effect can also be seen when money is involved in our decision-making. A study by Kathleen Vohs found that priming subjects with images of money dramatically changed their subsequent behavior. Vohs discovered that reminders of money led participants to take on a self-sufficient orientation in which they preferred to be free of dependency and dependents. Specifically, reminders of money led to reduced requests for help and reduced helpfulness toward others.
The pattern of self-sufficiency demonstrated by the study illustrates the way in which priming can change our behavior. With reminders of money, people adopt a more individualistic attitude while diminishing communal motivations.7
What it is
The priming effect occurs when an individual’s exposure to a certain stimulus subconsciously influences his or her response to a subsequent stimulus. These stimuli are often related to words or images that people see in their day-to-day lives.
Why it happens
Priming leads certain schemas in our long-term memories to be activated in unison, which in turn leads related or connected units of information to be activated at the same time. Once related schemas are activated and more accessible, it becomes easier for us to draw related information into memory more quickly, and we can thus respond faster when the need arises.
Example #1 - Consumer preferences
If consumers are primed with words associated with high-end retail brands, they will prefer these brands over low-end retail brands. However, consumers who are primed with words associated with low-end retail brands do not prefer high-end retail brands, thus demonstrating the priming effect in action.
Example #2 - Money and decision-making
When people are primed with images of money, they adopt individualistic behavior, and they prefer to be free of dependency and dependents. The priming effect clearly takes hold as the reminder of money leads people to make different decisions than they otherwise would have made.
How to avoid it
Developing an awareness of how priming occurs can mitigate some of the cognitive bias’s most harmful effects. However, we can also make use of existing research on the subject to prime our brains to create positive mannerisms and characteristics. Indeed, the priming effect can incite positive changes in our emotions, behaviors, and general thought processes.
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