What is Priming?
The world is full of many types of sensory input. For example, hundreds of cars are all around when we drive on the free way. Humans have to sort through all this input every second, and decide what is relevant. The person driving consistently in front of you won’t grab your brain’s attention. But the person to the side slamming on their breaks will.
Think of priming as emphasizing, with a purpose. When the person in front of you slams on their breaks, your brain recognizes them as something worth paying attention to. When you prime a person, you take an image, sound, or concept, and emphasize it. You tell the brain it is important. Then brain uses that emphasis to solve a problem. If the person in front of you keeps slamming on their breaks, you get out of your lane and pass them. But instead of just focusing on something, and then discarding it, the brain tries to keep using that thing you emphasized. It applies the pattern to many things.
Once you’ve passed the person who keeps pressing their breaks, your mind is now more sensitive to people who press their breaks. You’ll start seeing it everywhere. The next time someone presses their breaks, you’ll immediately start to wonder if you need to pass them. You’ve established a pathway in your brain that recognizes that stimulus more readily, and follows a successful pattern to try to solve it.
Priming seeks to hijack this behavior. If you can convince the brain certain elements of reality are more important, you can effect what elements the brain uses to make decisions. If you can affect the elements used in decision making, you can effect the outcome.
Here are some examples of successful priming in action.
11 Examples of Priming
Here are a few practical ways to use priming in your every day life. You can use these techniques to get the result you want both on yourself and on others.
- Smiling – In an odd way, smiling actually makes you happier. Smiling tells the body that you are happy, which makes it release happiness related chemicals. Smiling primes your brain. Sales people will often use this on phone calls. By smiling before the call, you can make your voice sound more excited, happy, and interested.
- Symbols of Power – Symbols of power are used as priming tools. Someone who has money is worth more money. You expect them to pay more, and you expect to pay more for them. This is another reason luxury goods are sought after. Thus displaying symbols of power will make people interpret what you do in terms of success.
- Word Choice – Some words are associated with others in our brain because they are used together frequently. For example, studies showed that using the word because can make your more persuasive in certain situations. People simply expect a good reason to follow when you use the word. But this effect covers many other categories. The way we speak, the words we choose, our grammar, and other elements of our verbal expression can prime people to interpret our behaviors. For example, certain accents are associated with certain stereotypes. If a person has a southern accent, you might start interpreting their behavior as relaxed and friendly. This explains why certain accents are commonly used in luxury commercials.
- Certainty – The brain has to filter through many options. Too many options means you’ll have to devote too much brain power to choose. This is why some menus have many options. They want to overwhelm you so you ask the server. This is why other menus have fewer options or one meal emphasized. They want to cut off your decisions to make your more rapidly act. Conveying certainty primes people’s brains to believe us. If you act like you know what you are talking about, people start believing you do. Instead of making difficult decisions themselves, they’ll differ to you.
- CBT – CBT is a therapy technique that teaches people to emphasize certain facts about the world over others. It is similar to framing, which we will cover soon.
- Personality – Personality primes us to focus on certain parts of the world at the expense of others. Those who are higher in neuroticism worry about what could go wrong more often. Those who are higher in conscientiousness are drawn to stories about improvement and accomplishment. When you persuade, think of the ways the person’s personality might accept
- Foot in Door – Foot in the door is a sales technique where a small request is made, that people usually grant, which is followed by a larger request. The first request primes people to think they want to cooperate with this person. Then the second request is the real target.
- Framing – Framing functions in a very similar manner to priming. In fact, framing is a super set of priming. Framing seeks to create a story that helps you interpret a set of facts.
- Repetition – When things are repeated, people think they are more important. They also think they are more likely to be relevant in decision making. Politics makes use of repetition. If you can repeat that the other side has some problem for long enough, people won’t listen to facts that demonstrate otherwise. Thus, if you can get your concept repeated over and over again, that repetition will start to effect subsequent decisions.
- Music – Music has been shown to effect buying decisions. (See image below). Some music makes people make more impulsive decisions. Others make people buy more. This is similar to the process of subliminal priming.
- Conceptual – Conceptual priming is the most advanced form of priming. If you can effect the axioms or elements a person uses to make a decision, you can effect the result. Since people have a desire to be coherent, all you have to do is convince them of one mistake, and they’ll ferret out the others on their own. To use this type of priming, ask yourself, what smaller beliefs lead up to this larger belief that I want to change? Find ways to change the smaller beliefs and eventually those smaller changes will bring about a change in the larger belief. For example, say they believe the world is flat. Maybe one of the motivations they have for this belief is the need to feel unique. Making them first feel unique, might make them more receptive to facts contrary to the belief that the world is flat. Questions often work well in facilitating conceptual priming.
Priming and Caldini’s PreSuasion
Caldini wrote another book about persuasion that focuses on priming. Here are a few quick takeaways.
- If you want someone to buy a box of expensive chocolates, have them write down number much larger than the price of the chocolates.
- If you want them to select a bottle of French wine, over other wines on a list, have them listen to French music first.
- If you wan them to try an untested product, ask them if they consider themselves to be adventurous.
- If you want them to choose a popular item, show them a scary movie first.
- If you want someone to feel positively towards you, give them a hot drink first.
- If you want them to be helpful, have them look at photos of individuals standing close together.
- If you want them to focus more on being achievement driven, show them a picture of a person winning a race.
- If you want them to be more careful and precise, show them a picture of someone thinking.
- If you want someone to be attracted to a product, sell the product with a picture of an attractive celebrity.
- Context based priming – this includes things like culture or situations that affect decision making.
- Anti-priming – this is when you purposefully make decision making difficult. People give up and defer. Anti-priming can be accomplished by overwhelming the subject with options.
- Emotion based priming – getting people to feel certain emotions to cause certain decisions to be more likely.
- Associative priming – uses feelings, expectations, or words to prime. For example saying dog might make you think of cat or barking. Some argue this also includes semantic priming.
- Repetition priming – is when you use patterns to control expectations.
- Visual priming – using visuals to effect results.