Post No.: 0194
‘Priming’ has been mentioned before within several previous posts already, so we’ll explore a bit more about this psychological technique or effect…
Priming involves exposing people to a prior stimulus, such as a word or idea, in order to influence their responses to a subsequent stimulus. For instance, if we have just been (whether consciously or not) exposed to the word or idea ‘wash’, then if we were told to complete the word ‘so_p’, we’d likely find it easier to say ‘soap’ as opposed to ‘soup’.
Priming primarily affects our perceptions subconsciously or unconsciously. If primed to find flaws in someone or something then we will likely find flaws in them. If we label a country as hostile then we’ll interpret their ambiguous actions as signifying hostility. Thinking about head lice will make your scalp suddenly feel itchy. Reading about psychological disorders might prime us to interpret our own normal anxieties and moods along the lines of being disordered. Even if someone tells you not to think of a purple tree, you’ll think of a purple tree (and the harder you’ll try not to think of one, the more you’ll think of one). So even a ‘no smoking sign’ can make people think about smoking because it precisely says the word ‘smoking’ – even though it has a ‘no’ in front of it! Similarly, telling someone who wasn’t worrying before, “Don’t worry about what’s in this drink” is a good way to make them worry! What we’re currently wearing can also influence our behaviour, such as a smart suit compared to a hooded top. We are highly suggestible creatures!
Priming with supraliminal (above the threshold of conscious awareness) messages can work i.e. when the conscious mind can clearly register a stimulus. Priming with subliminal (below the threshold of conscious awareness) messages can also work too, although it’s important to note that they may only work in very specific conditions and may only have a very temporary effect. Nonetheless, even though the conscious mind may not be concentrating on and may not have registered a certain stimulus (that might’ve been intentionally put there in the environment by another party), the subconscious or unconscious mind may have registered and been influenced by it without you ever consciously knowing it (e.g. the music or scents in a shop, or the culture one lives in).
Now if the mind cannot even register a stimulus i.e. if the information is too unintelligible or too briefly presented for the conscious, subconscious or unconscious mind to pick it up or guess at it then it won’t have an effect – that’s over-extrapolating the findings too far. Many beliefs about subliminal messages, such as reversed messages in music influencing people, have been perpetuated via fuzzy myths.
Evoked ideas, thoughts, feelings, symbols, metaphors, etc. can create a context for any near-future event and influence and prepare us for events that had just become (perceptually) more likely. Being exposed to words that are associated with the elderly can make us temporarily physically walk slower without us consciously intending to (the ‘Florida effect’). So even our actions and emotions can be primed and influenced by events or ideas we’re not even aware of. This is the ‘ideomotor effect’, which can also work in reverse or reciprocally, hence walking slowly can prime us for ideas related to the elderly too.
Reciprocal links or connections are how the associative networks of our brains work e.g. the ‘facial feedback effect’, where our body language affects our feelings, not just our feelings affect our body language – acting in a certain way can therefore make us feel that way e.g. nodding our heads whilst listening to a message can make us more likely agree with that message, and vice-versa with shaking our heads, simply because nodding and shaking our heads are, in many cultures, associated with feelings of agreement and disagreement respectively.
Even small cues can have a big effect e.g. cold coffee promotes coldness or unpleasantness in our behaviours, smelling cleaning fluid promotes tidying up, $ signs promote greed, briefcases on the table promote competitiveness. The right choice of in-store music/muzak can make people either speed up yet spend the same amount or slow down and buy more. A picture of 12 crosses, with 11 green and 1 yellow, may promote thinking differently and away from the crowd. Numbers that act as anchors are also basically examples of primes. (For more about anchoring, read Post No.: 0144.)
We must note though that some priming effects have been greatly exaggerated by some scientists e.g. thinking about a professor and then somehow suddenly performing better at general knowledge quizzes, or thinking about other stereotyped people and then suddenly possessing whatever skills or knowledge that are associated with those people. Priming cannot perform miracles! You won’t know kung fu just for being primed with it or with someone who does! Woof!
But research overall shows that priming effects do exist, but primes must be presented very close in time just before a subject’s response, the effects are only temporary, the effects are generally small, they work best in situations where a clear personal choice is not obvious (e.g. a prime that promotes taking a gamble in a situation that’s unclear will work better than in a situation where it’s clear that taking a gamble is out of the question – in unclear situations, that prime might just be what tilts one towards taking a gamble rather than not, but if taking a gamble is clearly not worth it then priming isn’t going to likely influence one to), they affect a person’s ideas and behaviours, not abilities and skills, and they don’t affect everyone and don’t work every time.
Priming people with messages of morality and honesty (e.g. reading some kind of list of moral commandments or signing an honour code) can help get people to become more honest – but the effect is temporary thus people need to be continuously reminded of their own morality, especially just immediately before a potential act of temptation. One-off messages don’t have a long-term effect. So thinking about our own morality can help keep us from temptation. But the key is that people must continue to consciously think about being honest, and we must make sure that signing honour codes or listening to commandments don’t just end up becoming a mindless automatic process. It’s the priming of moral thoughts that reduces cheating so if people start mindlessly signing such codes of honour then it’ll reduce their effectiveness (in which case, before an exam, try asking students to write down their own version of the honour code to sign so they must think about it?) A photo of a pair of stern eyes looking at an ‘honesty box’ can increase honesty where such payment methods are used too.
Priming threatens our furry self-concept as totally conscious and autonomous authors of our own judgements and choices, but even voting can be influenced by the location of a polling station (e.g. inside a school, or even in merely the presence of posters of classrooms, and the proposition to increase school funding or not); and of course commercial stores (online and offline), packaging designs and advertising all use priming all of the time (e.g. labels that evoke ‘farm fresh’ or ‘natural and wholesomeness’). People primed in an environment of thinking directly about money tend to be more self-reliant, selfish, unhelpful to others and exhibit other individualistic traits. People in environments where there are frequent reminders or images of gods or state leaders can feel like they’re being watched, which can symbolically prime respect or obedience. Uniforms prime conformity rather than creativity. Priming feelings of shame might even evoke a desire to wash oneself (the ‘Lady Macbeth effect’). Primed ideas can in turn prime other ideas, although more weakly. But do remember that priming effects will only affect those who arrived with indifferent or uncertain initial preferences or feelings (e.g. people who were uncertain with their vote or arrived without a clear shopping list before entering a store).
Our environment or contextual/situational factors, not just our personalities/dispositions, shape our feelings, choices, behaviours and actions. And a lot of this is happening without our conscious awareness – your subjective belief that you have complete control of your own decisions and actions consists of the story that your ‘system two’ tells itself about what’s going on, which is largely based on the impressions and associations generated via ‘system one’ (and priming mainly affects system one), for which you have no conscious access to. Priming shows us that our thoughts and behaviours may be influenced by stimuli to which we pay no direct attention to at all and maybe aren’t consciously aware of. The environment and context we’re in influences our thoughts and behaviours much more than we know or probably want.
Priming is extremely useful in daily life though – it can be surprising how well humans are able to understand one another when it comes to essentially ambiguous language e.g. being primed with ‘golf’ makes the meaning of, “He drove it into the water” clear – current artificial intelligences often struggle with discerning the contexts of some sentences, but humans seldom struggle at all. Priming and associative memory help us to find the appropriate contexts and meanings of ambiguous words and sentences, and most of the time our interpretations are correct. Tone and body language also help, which is why misunderstandings are more common via written communications.
Many people find priming effects unbelievable because they do not correspond to their (subjective) experience. Many others find them upsetting because they threaten their (subjective) sense of autonomy and agency. If the content of e.g. a screensaver on an irrelevant computer can affect your willingness to help strangers without you being aware of it then how free are you? You can even be aware of a number and pay direct attention to it, but you will not intuitively know how and how much it’ll guide, constrain and anchor your thinking because you cannot counterfactually imagine how you would’ve thought or behaved had the prime been different or absent. So it’s probably best to assume that any number presented has had an anchoring effect on you and, in general, if you suspect something could be trying to prime you then mobilise system two to critically question it and try to combat this effect. But that of course requires your conscious mind being alert to potential primes in the first place, where being constantly hyper-vigilant is effortful, stressful and depleting (you’ll eventually run out of energy to) anyway.
The right balance is therefore arguably to be more alert when the stakes are high and/or when the chances of being manipulated are high – for instance, in commercial/retail contexts or political contexts.