Researchers observed students taking an exam to see how many would cheat once the teacher left the room. They observed two classrooms with one difference between them: In one of the classrooms, there was a picture of the 10 Commandments hanging on the wall. The researchers found that fewer students cheated when the 10 Commandants were displayed in the background. The mere presence and reminder of morals made the students more moral.
When the introduction of (often unnoticed) stimuli in the background is meant to lead to a changed behavior, this is called priming.
The Florida experiment
Here is another great example: In a classic NYU study (1996), researchers asked two groups of students to form a sentence using 5 different words. One group was given words related to old age (e.g., retirement, grey, Florida, etc.). The second group had neutral, unrelated words (e.g., chair, green, lightbulb, etc.). After their task was completed, both groups were asked to walk to a different room to complete another task. The time it took them to get to the other room was the real experiment. Those students who were exposed to words related to old age walked slower than the other students.
Our brains are lazy
During a typical day, our brains have to figure out many, many things. So, to avoid “overheating,” they take shortcuts. They find the fastest route to come up with a conclusion and an action. This is why we tend to dress roughly the same each day despite having a closet full of clothes. This is why we keep ordering the same things at the same restaurants, despite opening a menu full of varied choices.
This is also why we feel the world is getting more violent despite many statistics proving the opposite; we are exposed to extremes on the news and social media and consequently assume this is the world around us.
In short, priming is when you use that brain tendency for shortcuts to create a conclusion. The first signal or stimulus doesn’t even have to be noticeable to cause an effect. In a 1999 Hariot Watt University experiment, French and German music was played in a grocery store on alternating days. The researchers found that on days when French music played, more French wine was sold, and on days when German music played, German wines sold better.
Priming in marketing
It’s no wonder then, that priming can be used as an effective marketing tool.
Adding a smiley face to your invoice has demonstrably caused customers to give higher customer service reviews.
On your website (or office wall), prominently feature awards or accolades that you’ve received. Visitors who see it will connect your success with the fact that working with you will make them a success, too.
Take our very own social startup, The Perspective. You’ll see a “Get to Know What the Other Side Thinks” at the top of our home page as a priming technique to help our readers open their minds to other points of view (which is the site’s mission).
Or, next time you’re about to close a deal, mention the bible with your client or customer. Doing so will subconsciously remind the other person to be fair.
You get the gist.
*All illustrations are from https://undraw.co/