- The hidden priming power of words and numbers: Words were some of the first cues discovered to prime our behaviour. More recently, social scientists have also found evidence that even the sound associations of particular words can prime our response. And numbers too can have priming effects.
- The hidden potential of sensory priming: We can also be primed through our senses - by what we see, smell, hear, taste and even feel in our environment.
- How simple physical actions can prime what we do, think and feel: We will look at how our own physical behaviour and actions and those of others can prime our subsequent thinking, judgement and behaviour.
- Make us faster to recognise or identify something: A simple example is where someone who has previously seen the word ‘yellow’ will be slightly faster to recognise the word ‘banana’ in a later context. (See image below.) This happens because the words ‘yellow’ and ‘banana’ are closely associated in memory. This is known as semantic or conceptual priming.
- Affect our perception or judgment: For example, someone who has been primed with the concept of fear might judge something or someone as more threatening in a later situation. And whatever the situation they find themselves in after being primed, any question which involves them making a judgment such as “What is that?” or “Who is that?” is likely to be subconsciously influenced by the concept with which they have been primed. This is known as construal priming.
- Affect our later actions or behaviour: For example, people first primed by reading words associated with impolite behaviour are subsequently more likely to behave rudely, interrupting another's conversation for instance. So, once again, any question which involves them taking action or making a decision about doing something is likely to be affected by what they have previously been primed by. This is known as behavioural priming. So we might think about how we could prime a person’s behaviour so they are more receptive to a particular brand, and to be more psychologically disposed or receptive to a brand’s tangible and intangible assets.
- Affect our goals and motivations to do something: For example, someone primed with the concept of competitiveness may be more likely to want to behave more competitively in a later activity. Once again, in any subsequent situation in which someone asks themselves “What do I want to do? What am I motivated to do?” they will be influenced by what they have been primed by in an earlier context. This is known as goal priming. So we might think about priming the context so primed goals are in line with a brand’s assets.
Priming part 1
an initial priming task, followed by:
a seemingly unrelated task to test the effect of the prime.
Asking participants to unscramble a series of sentences which contain words related to the concept being primed such as kindness or hostility.
Asking participants to create words from strings of letters; for instance the letter string s-k-i-n-s-e-d-n makes the word kindness.
Word searches are sometimes used, with participants finding words which prime the particular concept.
Other techniques might be simply to ask a participant to read a paragraph which primes a particular concept eg a short passage about someone being hostile at a dinner party to prime hostility and unfriendliness.
- Cooperation and politeness
- Selfishness and greed
- Spending behaviour
- Healthy living
One of the most well-known studies illustrating how our behaviour can be primed in this way was carried out by psychologist John Bargh and colleagues. Participants were primed to behave either politely or rudely by being given a word scramble task using either words associated with politeness – such as respect, courteous, graciously - or words associated with rudeness - such as bold, interrupt, disturb, obnoxious. There was also a control group primed with neutral words.
What state of mind does a consumer need to be in to be most receptive to a particular brand and how might we stimulate this state?
How might we prime respondents in research to be more cooperative and collaborative?
- How might we prime people in general to be more generous and trusting?
- Think about the forced social situations such as commuting where priming politeness or consideration to others could make our commute a little less stressful.
- primed the concept of credit cards eg “TV shall watch we Visa”, or
- the concept of cash eg "TV shall we watch ATM"
Priming a credit card concept tended to subconsciously direct consumers’ attention more to the benefits of the potential purchase in their evaluation. The researchers speculate that this is because credit cards tend to make payment and the actual exchange of money less salient and vivid and, therefore, less painful since there is no physical loss - your card is returned at the end of the transaction. And it could impact on spending - consumers are more likely to purchase a product and spend more on it or opt for the more expensive model.
Priming a cash concept on the other hand, directed consumers’ attention towards the cost of the purchase. Cash payments are more tightly coupled with the exchange of money and are more salient and vivid since the consumer physically parts with cash - there is the pain of actually handing over money, drawing on the concept of loss aversion. Likewise, this effect would impact on spending, making consumers either less likely to buy a product at all, or more likely to opt for a cheaper model.
How might we prime consumers to think more about the benefits or drawbacks of a potential purchase or action?
How might priming techniques be used in consumer research, for example, innovation projects? How would you prime research respondents with words to focus on either the benefits or costs of a product they are testing via a credit card or cash prime?
How can we prompt consumers to think more about their experience with a product or brand?
- Or get them thinking more about the context in which brands are used and the values associated with this context?
- We should be more aware of the increasing value of consumers’ time; we should think about both the time spent by a consumer with our brand e.g. when consuming [how we might apply a value to this time] as well as the time we ask of consumers with our brand communications. This could change how we frame or position brands, promotions and research engagements.
- Understanding the effectiveness of priming is sometimes easier if you start closer to home.
- Is there a way you can prime yourself to eat more healthily? What tiny stimuli could you place in your home and workplace to subconsciously affect your behaviour?
- Esther Papies believes it’s possible to help yourself to diet and eat less by priming yourself with certain words. She says some of the best words to focus on are slim, healthy, fit and weight. If you’re feeling tempted to eat, prime yourself with fat-fighting vocab. “Put them in your calendar so you see them before you head for lunch,” Papies says. Or you could stick the words on the fridge door to prime you in the kitchen.
This has very powerful and simple implications for marketing and research. People have multiple identities so we may want to think about which identity we want to prime, draw to the front of mind and make more salient when conducting research?
Similarly, at what times as researchers is it useful to prime individuality? And at what times would priming cohesiveness and conformity be more relevant?
- In marketing, what mental state or identity would make someone more receptive to a brand’s subconscious connections and how could we prime this?
Could we think harder about the numbers people see on packs, in store, online, on letters and emails and how these might impact on their behaviour?
- What numbers might consumers be primed by in contexts we have control over?