Why do some ideas prompt other ideas later on without our conscious awareness?

 

Priming

, explained.

What is Priming?

Priming, or, the Priming Effect, occurs when an individual’s exposure to a certain stimulus influences his or her response to a subsequent stimulus, without any awareness of the connection. These stimuli are often related to words or images that people see during their day-to-day lives.

“Priming”

Where this bias occurs

An example of priming can be seen if you are presented with the word ‘doctor’. A moment later, you will recognize the word ‘nurse’ much faster than the word ‘cat’ because the two medical workers are closely associated in your mind. All of this will occur without your conscious awareness. The priming effect is also commonly found when you try to remember a song’s lyrics. If the lyrics of a song 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.

 

 

Individual effects

The priming effect can have a tremendous impact in ways that are detrimental to ourselves and those around us. Studies have shown that we can be primed to behave in certain manners based on things we have read, watched, and heard. The professor John Bargh demonstrated the effects of priming by having different students unscramble sentences that reflected aggression, patience, and positivity. After they finished unscrambling their sentences, they were made to wait for Bargh to check their answers. Bargh found that the students who were given the sentences about aggression to unscramble became the most frustrated at the waiting time to have their answers checked. The students who were given the sentences about patience and positivity, however, were the least frustrated when waiting to have their answers checked. The study thus proved that if we are primed to act in a certain manner, we become more likely to act in that way.1

Systemic effects

The priming effect can impact society if enough individuals are primed to behave or think in a specific manner. For companies with recognizable brands, the priming effect can be used to exploit how people think in order to have them buy more company products. Indeed, companies can activate or bring certain associations forward 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.

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. When these schemas are activated, our memories become easier to access. Priming suggests that certain schemas are 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. 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.

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. Negative priming, on the other hand, slows down information processing in our minds.

Semantic Priming

Semantic priming occurs when we associate words in a logical or linguistic way. The early example of the connection between doctor and nurse provides an explanation for this form of priming.

Repetition Priming

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

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

Having an awareness of priming can both mitigate this cognitive bias’ negative impact and enable us to make use of its helpful effects. As previously mentioned, priming can influence our behaviour in ways that can be harmful to those around us. No one wants their friends to think they are a mean person, yet this is sometimes out of our control if we have been primed to act in this manner. 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 understand how to use priming to our advantage. We can use priming to improve numerous cognitive functions such as our reading comprehension skills, our listening skills, and our ability to process information quickly. Even some physical skills such as our walkling speed can be directly influenced by priming. Thus, it is in everyone’s best interest to develop an awareness for how the priming effect works.

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 the cognitive bias affects our lives in hopes of mitigating its most harmful effects. Additionally, 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, behaviours, and general thought processes.

Health Management

The researchers John Wryobeck and Yiwei Chen have found that the priming effect can subconsciously facilitate individuals’ health behaviours 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

Honesty Promotion

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 an image of a pair of eyes on contributions to an honesty box that collected money for drinks in a university coffee lounge. Due to the eyes, the study found that people paid 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 behaviour—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 the 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 et al. 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. A great deal of the focus from early priming research remained concentrated on examining the processes by which priming effects on social impressions occurred. Research began to change over time as the scope of relevant priming stimuli broadened. In the present day, priming effects in psychological research encompass a highly diverse set of phenomena and processes whose boundaries continue to be explored.

Example 1 - Consumer preferences

A study by Chartrand et al. 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 is and needs to 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 behaviour. 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 behaviour. With reminders of money, people adopt a more individualistic attitude while diminishing communal motivations.7

Summary

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 during 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.

Related TDL articles

Does the Quantified-Self Lead to Behavior Change?

This article presents a way for us to better navigate and make use of the large amounts of data that we come across in our lives. In order to change bad habits, this data can be especially useful. For example, the data feedback given by wearable technology can prime us to change our behavior for the better.

A Nudge for Coverage: Last-Mile Problems for Health Insurance

This article considers priming and behavioral nudges as solutions to ‘last-mile problems’. These are situations where individuals can be prompted to act in specific ways. For example, the article looks at why so few Americans applied for healthcare coverage under the Affordable Care Act despite the benefits they would receive from gaining healthcare coverage. Through priming, the American government could entice many more citizens to sign up and receive health care.

 

Sources

1. Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (1996). Automatic activation of impression formation and memorization goals: Nonconscious goal priming reproduces effects of explicit task instructions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71(3), 464–478. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.71.3.464.

2. Cherry, K. (2020). How Priming Affects the Psychology of Memory. https://www.verywellmind.com/priming-and-the-psychology-of-memory-4173092.

3. Wryobeck, J. and Chen, Y. (2003), Using Priming Techniques to Facilitate Health Behaviours. Clinical Psychologist, 7: 105-108. doi:10.1080/13284200410001707553.

4. Bateson, M., Nettle, D., & Roberts, G. (2006). Cues of being watched enhance cooperation in a real-world setting. Biology letters, 2(3), 412–414. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2006.0509

5. Molden, D. C. (2014). Understanding priming effects in social psychology: What is “social priming” and how does it occur? In D. C. Molden (Ed.), Understanding priming effects in social psychology (p. 3–13). The Guilford Press.

6. Chartrand, T. L., Huber, J., Shiv, B., & Tanner, R. J. (2008). Nonconscious goals and consumer choice. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(2), 189–201. https://doi.org/10.1086/588685.

7.Vohs, K. D., Mead, N. L., & Goode, M. R. (2006). The psychological consequences of money. Science, 314(5802), 1154–1156.