The Priming Effect - Part I

Read "The Priming Effect - Part II"

Read The Priming Effect - Part I -

How We Get Influenced By The Previous One

Are our thoughts and judgments, which we make day by day, only dependent on our conscious decision or are they possibly influenced to a great extent from outside? Could it be that the weight of a shopping bag makes us attach greater importance to nutritional information on food? And can the temperature of a drink affect our sympathy for an unknown person? Does the hardness of a chair change our willingness to compromise in negotiations? Will the willingness to accept high purchase prices increase if large numbers have previously been mentioned, perhaps in a completely different context?
Priming research deals with these and other questions. The priming effect is a phenomenon that has not only fascinated social psychologists for several decades. Numerous exciting experiments from priming research show that ideas and assessments are significantly influenced by subliminal stimuli.


What is Priming?

The term priming can be translated as "prepare". What is meant by this is that a first stimulus (prime), which is absorbed by the human brain, significantly influences the interpretation or the reaction to subsequent stimuli. That means the prime activates an association field with which the following is connected. That is an extremely important point. Thoughts, emotions and actions are not generated without context, as it were from nowhere, but relate to what has gone before. However, we are often unaware of the connection with the previous one.
Priming stimuli are stimuli on all sensory channels such as images, words, tactile sensations or smells, but also thoughts and memories.

This phenomenon can be illustrated with the following trick:

Klaus asks Peter a series of questions to which he should answer as quickly as possible.
Klaus: What color is the snow?
Peter: Of course I know.
Klaus: What color is the wall?
Peter: Also white.
Klaus: What color are the clouds?
Peter: White.
Klaus: What does the cow drink?
Peter: milk.

Wrong answer! Although Peter may have already guessed that he should be misled by the questions about the color white, the answer to the last question was "milk" as if it were shot out of a gun. Everyone knows that cows, like all mammals, only drink milk in the first few months. By dealing with the color white, however, the wrong answer was prepared on an unconscious level. This type of preparation can not only influence spontaneous answers, but also judgments and actions, as has been demonstrated by numerous social psychological experiments.

Explanatory models

There are several explanatory models for the priming effect. The most common models assume that the priming stimulus activates certain network-like structures in the brain that are associated with this stimulus. In the example above, this would be all that is white. When later stimuli are perceived, the activation of these network structures favors interpretations that are related to the interpretation of the first stimulus. However, other interpretations are inhibited. Since milk is whiter than water and, moreover, suits the cow perfectly, the wrong answer is literally obvious.

Since the priming effect takes place on an unconscious level, we have the impression that our perceptions and actions influenced by the stimulus are based on our own ideas - especially if the priming stimulus was not consciously perceived as such. Numerous, sometimes very surprising, scientific studies have dealt with the priming effect. For example, it was demonstrated that priming can be used to influence judgments that test subjects make about another person.

Is Donald Confident or Arrogant?

One of the oldest and most prominent studies dates back to 1977. Some of the subjects were "primed" with positive words, the other part with negative words. The test subjects assumed that this was a perception test. Subsequently, the test subjects were asked to participate in another study that was supposed to be independent of the first test.
Here they received the description of a person named Donald, whose behavior in this description could be interpreted in different ways. It was found that the test subjects primed with positive words tended to interpret Donald's behavior as "adventurous" and "confident", for example. The subjects primed with negative words, on the other hand, tended to describe him with attributes such as "reckless" or even "arrogant".
Higgins, ET, Rholes, WS, & Jones CR: Category accessibility and impression formation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 1977 -  source

Heavy loads make us more serious and increase nutritional information sense

Another study at the University of Honkong and the National University of Singapore examined how the priming effect can affect the value that people attach to certain questions. Some of the subjects had to carry heavy shopping bags beforehand, while the people in the other group were given bags with empty plastic bottles. Both test groups believed that the study was about how much weight consumers are willing to carry.

Then both groups were asked to answer questions about the value they attach to different things. In this experiment too, the test subjects were deliberately withheld from the fact that these questions were related to the previous experiment. For example, they were asked how important they thought it was that food products were provided with nutritional information or how important it was to express their own opinion in public. The subjects, who had previously been difficult to carry, considered these questions to be of greater importance than the control group. In further experiments, it also became clear that it made no difference whether the test subjects really had to carry the weight physically or whether the weight was only suggested to them in words.
Meng Zhang & Xiuping Li: From Physical Weight to Psychological Significance. The Contribution of Semantic Activations. Journal of Consumer Research. April 2012 -  source

Priming and the discovery of slowness

Another widely cited study has shown that priming can influence not only people's perceptions and attitudes, but also their unconscious behavior. It should be mentioned in advance that the results of this experiment, known as the "Florida effect", could not be reproduced a decade later in the experimental setup. Other, similarly designed experiments, however, were able to confirm comparable effects. One group of subjects from the Florida experiment were primed with words related to stereotypes of older people, such as confused, lonely, old, gray, Florida, retirement etc. Stereotypes that directly related to the slowness common to older people related, consciously avoided. The subjects of another group were primed with neutral words.
The test subjects were then given the task of constructing sentences from individual words.

What the test subjects did not know was that their walking speed was measured before and after this task. As a result, it was found that the test subjects walked significantly slower than before when leaving the test room, whereas no significant difference could be measured in a control group that had been primed with neutral words.
Bargh, JA, Chen, M. & Burrows: Automaticity of social behavior. Direct effect of trait construct and sterotype activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1996

In 2006, a study at the University of Cologne showed that the Florida effect also works in the other direction. The subjects were encouraged to move slowly in a way that is characteristic of older people. It turned out that compared to a control group, it was much easier for these people to memorize stereotypical words for the age that they had heard on headphones during the experiment. These were the German translations of the words that had already been used in the Florida experiment.
Thomas Mussweiler: Doing Is for Thinking! Stereotype Activation by Stereotypic Movements. Psychological Science 17, 2006, pp. 17-21

Success can also be primed

Priming can also increase creativity and performance. In a study by Prof. Alexander D. Stajkovic at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, participants were asked to form as many different sentences as possible from individual words. Success words such as “win”, “be successful”, “competition” were presented to a group. A control group, on the other hand, received neutral words such as "turtle", "green", "lamp" for the same task.

Afterwards, the participants were given another task casually, under the impression that it had nothing to do with the actual study. This was a creativity task in which it was about developing as many different things as possible from a piece of wire. This showed that the group that had been primed by the words of success achieved significantly better results.
Alexander D. Stajkovic, Edwin A. Locke, Eden S. Blair: A First Examination of the Relationships Between Primed Subconscious Goals, Assigned Conscious Goals, and Task Performance. Journal of Applied Psychology 91, 2006, pp. 1172-1180

Apple stabs IBM

Priming also works if the priming stimulus is not perceived with consciousness. In a study at Duke University in Canada, 341 students were given a task they thought was a visual acuity test. During the experiment, the Apple logo was shown to a group in sequences that were so short that the conscious mind could not perceive this. Another group saw the IBM logo in the same way.

The two groups then took part in a creativity test. It turned out that the people who were subconsciously primed by the Apple logo achieved significantly more results, which were also rated as better by independent experts. In order to check whether the stimulus was really not consciously perceived, the experimenters offered the test subjects $ 100 if they could say which logo was flashed on the screen. None of them could say it!

It can be clearly stated from the results of the priming research that we are primed countless times every day and even priming other people regularly without even realizing it. Not only are our beliefs largely unconsciously chosen, our perspectives and actions are also significantly influenced by previously - consciously or unconsciously - perceptions.

Priming is neither good nor bad, it simply exists. It is a phenomenon that describes how previously perceived influences our subsequent perception and our thinking. It is a useful algorithm that quickly connects things and incorporates the foregoing. We can assume that without this effect our minds would work much slower. We have to accept the resulting disadvantage of being influenced by the previous. Or we use it to live a better life ...

It is therefore worthwhile to deal with priming, especially if we consciously want to make the most free decision possible or to positively influence situations. Above all, it is crucial which primes we consciously bring into our lives in order to align our perception and behavior with goals and solutions instead of obstacles and problems.
In the next blog article we will deal with some more exciting experiments, and then in the third article we will focus on the diverse practical applications.

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