The priming effect

Priming in psychology is exposure to a stimulus that unconsciously influences the response to a subsequent stimulus. Daniel Kahneman exposes the following examples in “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”

In one experiment, groups of students were asked to assemble sentences from scrambled sets of words, after which they were sent down the hall to do another experiment, the point of the experiment was this walk. One group was given a set of words related with the elderly (e.g. Florida, forgetful, bald, gray). The time it took them to get to the other room was measured. That group walked significantly slower.

In a mirror experiment, people were asked to walk around a room for 5min at about one-third their usual pace. After which they were much quicker to recognize words related to old age.

Priming seems to work both ways: thinking a certain way influences you to act a certain way. And acting a certain way reinforces certain thoughts.

In another experiment, students were asked to rate the humor of a cartoon while holding a pencil between their teeth so that the point was facing to their left and the eraser to their right. Other students did the same while holding a pencil by pursing their lips, so that the point would be aimed straight out. The groups were unaware that these actions made them either smile or frown, but the first group found the cartoons funnier.

Simple gestures can also unconsciously influence thoughts and feelings. People were asked to listen to messages through new headphones, supposedly to test the quality of the audio equipment. To check for any distortions of sound, half the participants were told to nod their head up and down while others were told to shake it side to side. The messages they heard were radio editorials. Those who nodded (a yes gesture) tended to accept the message they heard, but those who shook their head tended to reject it.

A study of voting patterns showed that the support for propositions to increase the funding of schools was significantly greater when the polling station was in a school than when it was in a nearby location. A separate experiment showed that exposing people to images of classrooms and school lockers also increased the tendency of participants to support a school initiative.

Reminders of money produce some troubling effects. Similar to the old-age experiment, participants were primed to the idea of money by constructing sentences from words related to money. Other primes were more subtle, including the presence of an irrelevant money-related object in the background, such as a stack of Monopoly money on a table, or a computer with a screen saver of dollar bills floating in water. Money-primed people became more independent and self-reliant than they would have been without the associative trigger. They persevered almost twice as long in trying to solve a very difficult problem before they asked the experimenter for help. Money-primed people were also more selfish: they were much less willing to spend time helping another student who pretended to be confused about an experimental task. When an experimenter clumsily dropped a bunch of pencils on the floor, the participants with money (unconsciously) on their mind picked up fewer pencils. In another experiment, participants were told that they would shortly have a get-acquainted conversation with another person and were asked to set up two chairs while the experimenter left to retrieve that person. Participants primed by money chose to stay much farther apart than their nonprimed peers (118cm vs. 80cm). Money-primed undergraduates also showed a greater preference for being alone.

Consider the ambiguous word fragments W__H and S__P. People who were recently asked to think of an action of which they were ashamed were more likely to complete those fragments as WASH and SOAP and less likely to see WISH and SOUP. Feeling that one’s soul is stained appears to trigger a desire to cleanse one’s body, an impulse that has been dubbed the “Lady Macbeth effect.” The cleansing is highly specific to the body parts involved in a sin. Participants in another experiment were induced to “lie” to an imaginary person, either on the phone or in e-mail. In a subsequent test of the desirability of various products, people who had lied on the phone preferred mouthwash over soap, and those who had lied in e-mail preferred soap to mouthwash.

Lastly, an experiment was conducted in an office kitchen at a British university. Members of that office paid for the tea or coffee to which they helped themselves during the day by dropping money into an “honesty box.” A list of suggested prices was posted. For a period of ten weeks a new banner poster was displayed above the price list each week, either flowers or eyes that appeared to be looking directly at the observer. On average, the users of the kitchen contributed almost three times as much in “eye weeks” as they did in “flower weeks.” Evidently, a purely symbolic reminder of being watched prodded people into improved behavior. As we expect at this point, the effect occurs without any awareness.