The Art of Priming

June 17, 2013 |  by

Daniel Kahneman points out in Thinking Fast and Slow:

If you have recently seen or heard the word EAT, you are tempo­rarily more likely to complete the word fragment SO_P as SOUP than as SOAP. The opposite would happen, of course, if you had just seen WASH. We call this a priming effect and say that the idea of EAT primes the idea of SOUP, and that WASH primes SOAP.

Try it yourself. Read the first column of words, complete the last word, then do the same for the second group. priminglistOk. Big deal. Green or grape, so what? But this is just a basic example. The bigger idea is that in selecting the input to someone’s brain, we can control the output (whether it’s a word, idea or emotion). This happens all the time.

Here’s another example:

In a classic 1996 study by John Bargh, Mark Chen and Lara Burrows at New York University, students were show sets of five words. Students receiving the word set Florida, forgetful, bald, gray, wrinkle were later observed to walk significantly more slowly than other groups. Words associated with the elderly actually made the students behave more elderly.

Likewise, people primed with money-related images or words become more independent. They demonstrate more perseverance and self-reliance, qualities generally associated with attaining money.

As Dain Dunston explains:

Priming is the mechanism of triggering unconscious behavior changes through the power of association. Priming someone with a trait like kindness or rudeness has been proven to be quite easy. And several studies have shown that priming someone with a stereotype—a picture of a class of person or behavior—can make that person display that same behavior or act like the stereotype.

William James called this the principle of ideomotor action, saying, “every representation of a movement awakens in some degree the actual movement which is its object.” James realized that just the act of thinking about a behavioral response—even unconsciously—increase the likelihood of our displaying that same behavior.

Priming is how advertising works. We see an ad that makes us feel alive—and that feeling gets associated with a product. The process is a basic function of the brain. The brain makes associations. Manipulation is all about controlling (or influencing) another person’s associations. At core, it’s so simple: official propaganda, advertising, campaigning, spin—the goal of each is to manipulate another person’s associations. Priming is the main technique.

We all do it. A husband whose wife is leaving him may remind her how much money he has. He’s not making an intellectual case—he’s associating a life of wealth (ie freedom, happiness) with living with him. Priming is what Derren Brown does, only better than you and me. Self priming—changing your personal associations—was the goal of NLP. Hitler primed the will of millions to destruction. Edward Bernays primed women to smoke by associating freedom with smoking.

Priming isn’t good or bad. It’s just how the brain works. We can prime ourselves for improvement and success, or prime others to do what we want (if we so choose). What’s important is knowing how it works—especially when we want to make our own free choice.

 

 

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