If you’ve ever painted a room in a house before, you’ll likely have engaged in the debate about whether to prime or not. Advocates of priming will tell you that it prepares the surface and will help you get a cleaner and smoother finish. Opponents will say it’s a waste of time and just adds cost with little return.
At the root of such arguments is whether an extra step is worth the effort in terms of the outcomes and results you will achieve.
However, what if you were primed and had no idea this was happening?
Priming is a psychological process where being exposed to one thing (be it words, ideas, actions or some stimulus) activates you to then behave differently in subsequent tasks involving judgement. It is suggested that priming can affect “the opinions that individuals express, not by changing their attitudes, but by causing them to alter the criteria they use to evaluate the object in question”.
Here’s a great example which was discussed in a recent episode of one of my favourite podcasts – Freakonomics.
In this episode, the host Stephen Dubner is chatting with Associate Professor of Psychology and Neural Science at New York University, Jay Van Bavel about how being a fan connects with and creates a sense of identity. Van Bavel recounted research which was conducted at Lancaster University. There were two parts to the experiment. In the first part, Manchester United football fans answered questions about the team, how long they had supported the team and so on. They were then asked to move location, and when they did, they came across an injured jogger. This injured jogger was sometimes wearing a Liverpool football club jersey and other times wasn’t. Now, if you know anything about the English Premier League, you’ll be aware they are two highly competitive teams with highly supportive fans.
Of course, the injured jogger was part of the experiment. The researchers wanted to see whether the actions of the Manchester United fans would be impacted by the jogger’s allegiance to a different team. What they found was that when the jogger was wearing the Liverpool jersey, very few Manchester United fans stopped. In contrast, when the jogger wasn’t wearing the jersey, most of the fans stopped and offered help.
The researchers then ran the experiment again, but the initial questions differed. This time, the questions focused on the fan’s love of soccer. Once again, the participants were asked to move location and came across the injured jogger. This time, however, help was offered regardless of whether the injured jogger was wearing the Liverpool jersey or not. The researchers concluded that having a shared identity as a soccer fan meant they were more willing to help.
This is a classic case of social priming – where being primed to think about something in one way influences a subsequent action.
As a concept, priming is not without its detractors, and there are some who argue that all is not as it seems. This 2019 article in Nature outlines how some of the claims about priming may not stack up, while other researchers argue there is value in priming’s central idea.
The central idea is that an earlier stimulus can unconsciously direct us to behave in a way that differs from how we would have behaved if that earlier stimulus had not taken place.
To me, it’s a reminder of the fact that there are many elements that unconsciously influence how we think and ultimately behave.
For example, in the early 1970s, John Darley and Daniel Batson (Princeton University) examined how time pressure affects behaviour. They invited students to participate in a series of experiments. In one of these experiments, the students were told to move from one building to another. The testers varied the amount of ‘urgency’ in this message. To move between the buildings, the students had to go past a person slumped on the floor and moaning.
What the researchers found is that the more urgency in the message, the less likely it was for the person to stop and offer assistance. Those who didn’t stop, many of them appeared agitated when they got to the next building. This was because they were conflicted between their desire to help and the instructions they were given to get to the new building quickly.
We can fail to see what is going on around us when we are busy and preoccupied with timeliness.
We also have selective attention. This fact was perfectly illustrated by psychologists Dan Simons and Christopher Chabris, who wrote about this in their 2010 book, The Invisible Gorilla.
They conducted an experiment involving two teams. One team was wearing white shirts, and the other team was wearing black shirts. The teams were filmed, and this was played back to a group of people. They were instructed to count the number of times the ball was passed between the players wearing the white shirts and to ignore the team in black shirts. Halfway through the video, a person wearing a gorilla suit appeared – thumped their chest – and moved off-screen. The gorilla was on the screen for just under 10 seconds. Not a long time, but still long enough to think that people would notice.
When the researchers asked the people to recall how many times the ball was thrown, they got the number right. However, when they were asked about the gorilla, about half the people watching the film failed to see it. How was that possible? It turns out that the instructions to count and ignore the other team caused the brain to focus solely on that – to the exclusion of other things going on around it.
Our brain can very easily ignore information that it does not see as relevant, just as it can be primed to decide in certain ways.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you throw your hands up in despair. It does, however, mean it is crucial to consider the unconscious, subtle and habitual factors that influence how you decide.
As author and positive thinking advocate, Norman Vincent Peale once said “Change your thoughts and you change your world”.
Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®
Michelle Gibbings is bringing back the happy to workplace culture. The award-winning author of three books, and a global keynote speaker, she’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated.