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The Power of Psychological Priming

Updated: Nov 2, 2023

Do you think someone can influence your behavior or decisions without you knowing it's happening. It’s more than likely than not that you were primed the last time you went grocery shopping.

Psychological 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. Since the early 1980s, researchers have studied priming by considering how exposure to certain types of information can influence how we behave and think. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman explains, "An effective prime needs to be strong enough to impact behaviour, but not so strong that it enters conscious thought – the effect must remain subconscious."

Priming can be activated with almost any kind of stimulus. Images, words, smells, light, sound, tasks, touch, or temperature can all unconsciously affect our choices. As long as someone has a strong, existing association with one of these stimuli, it can significantly affect our decision-making, perceptions of others and behavior - without even being aware of the influence.

Whole Foods leads the pack in consumer priming. What do you see first when you walk into the store? Fresh cut flowers. Advertisers call this an example of “symbolics”–unconscious suggestions. In this case, Whole Foods wants us to know the store is bursting with freshness.

The way the produce is displayed in wooden crates and baskets is reminiscent of a farmers market. And the misters that keep certain vegetables glistening with water? It's so you and I associate them with freshness and purity. Ironically, that constant water supply makes the vegetables rot more quickly than they would otherwise.

Primed for Power

We can also be primed with branding. In a 2017 study, researchers found that people feel and act much drunker if their drink is labeled “Vodka-Red Bull cocktail” than if the exact same drink is labeled a “Vodka” or an “Exotic fruit” cocktail. After they downed their drinks, the subjects were given three tasks. First, they played a gambling game on a computer, they were shown photographs of 15 women and asked whether they’d approach each in a bar and whether they thought they would get her number (the subjects were all heterosexual). Finally, they filled out surveys describing how drunk they had felt.

The group that drank the cocktail labeled "Vodka-Red Bull"—who drank exactly the same cocktail as everyone else—reported feeling much drunker and took more risks than the others. They were also more confident when it came to approaching women, expressing greater certainty of getting their numbers. Even participants who were purposefully misled into believing their drink contained Red Bull still said they were feeling less inhibition and increased their intentions to approach and “chat up” women.

The personality of a brand can subconsciously nudge consumers to behave in ways consistent with that personality when exposed to brand imagery. Red Bull has built their brand identity by sponsoring promotions such as street luge contests, airplane races, and a full-contact ice-skating obstacle course. Think power, speed, and strength.

A Boston College study looked at the impact of different logos on race cars in a video game. One car had the Red Bull’s logo and color scheme, while the other cars had branding identifiers for Guinness, Tropicana, and Coca Cola. Players put in control of the Red Bull car displayed the characteristics often attributed to the brand -- like speed, power, aggressiveness and risk-taking - without the consumers being aware of it.

The Red Bull effect shows advertising and marketing can push beyond the sale. They can influence behavior in a way that consumers aren't even aware of.

Primed for Honesty

Because priming works with subconscious associations, it can be triggered by any number of stimuli. There is a wealth of research exploring this phenomenon.

  • A 2008 study found that people primed with Apple logos behave more creatively than IBM primed and controls, and Disney-primed participants behave more honestly than E!-primed participants and controls.

  • In a 2010 study, participants in a darkened room cheated more and thus earned more undeserved money than those in a well-lit room.

  • The LA Transit Authority cites a 75% reduction in calls for emergency service, a 50% reduction in vandalism, graffiti, and cleanups, and a nearly 20 percent drop in crime after playing classical music in the stations.

Of the senses, smell is the most closely linked to memory and emotions, making it a potent weapon in transforming people's moods. Real estate agents long ago discovered the power of an apple pie baking in the oven. In a 2005 study, exposure to the scent of all-purpose cleaner caused participants to keep their direct environment more clean during an eating task, and less littering occurred in train cars with the scent of citrus than trains with no scent.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of the bestselling book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, describes priming this way:

What we think of as freewill is largely an illusion: much of the time, we are simply operating on automatic pilot, and the way we think and act—and how well we think and act on the spur of the moment—are a lot more susceptible to outside influences than we realize.

Primed for Politeness

In 1996, researcher John Bargh did an experiment to see if he could influence behavior with a simple activity. The researchers had three groups of participants.

  1. The first group had the “Rude Condition” and had to unscramble a list of rude words like bold, aggressive, disturb.

  2. The second group, called “Polite Condition” had a series of polite words like patient, respect and respectful.

  3. The last group, the “Neutral Condition”, had words that were neither polite nor rude.

When a participant was done unscrambling words, they were instructed to walk down the hallway and tell the researcher they were finished. What they didn't know was that the researcher would be in engaged in a long fake discussion with another researcher when the participant arrived. The experiment was to test how long it would take for each group to interrupt the researcher to tell him that they were done.

Within 10 minutes, 60% of the rude group had interrupted, while only 40% of the neutral group and 20% of the polite group had interceded.


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