The priming effect: Why you’re less in control of your actions than you think

“You know far less about yourself than you feel you do.” — Daniel Kahneman

We like to think we’re in control of everything we do. In some sense we are, but we’re also subtly influenced by our environment and circumstances without even realizing it.

One way this happens is through something called a priming effect. In the 1980s, psychologists started finding that exposure to particular words could encourage recognition or evocation of related words more easily.

For instance, If you have recently seen or heard the word eat, you are temporarily more likely to fill in so_p as soup rather than soap.”

In this case, the word eat primes the word or idea of soup.

Images can play a part as well. If you saw the image below, you’d probably complete so_p as soup:


Whereas if you saw this image, you’d probably complete the word as soap:


Generally, priming effects work in the same way, only they’re a lot more subtle. Mostly the effects take place entirely in our subconscious.

How words can affect our thoughts and actions

The word eat from our example can also prime other related words like plate, food or restaurant. Priming doesn’t only mean you’ll think of these words more quickly, but also that you’ll more easily recognize them if they’re hard to read or hear.

I’ve actually noticed this in action before, when I worked in a fast food drive-thru years ago. Because I was primed by the menu items of the restaurant, I was able to easily pick them out from the crackly microphone customers ordered into. When someone asked for something we didn’t sell, like a pizza, however, the fact that I wasn’t primed to recognize that word meant the low-quality crackly sound overwhelmed my understanding of their order.

Interestingly, priming with words has also been shown to affect our actions, without us even realizing. Psychologist John Bargh published a study in 1996 which involved students from New York University. The students were asked to make four-word sentences from sets of five words, for instance: “finds he it yellow instantly” became “he finds it instantly.”

One group of the students was exposed to several words related to the elderly, such as gray, bald and wrinkle, in the course of the experiment. After the task was completed, students walked down a hallway to complete another task while experimenters secretly timed their walk. Students who had been primed with words about the elderly walked slower than control students, although they had no idea their actions had been affected. They didn’t even notice the trend of words related to being old.

There has been some controversy about this study and others that try to replicate the findings, but the general consensus seems to be that although replicating priming study effects can be difficult, so many individual studies have found large effects that priming is likely to affect us all to some degree.

How money-related images prime us to be less helpful

Of course, images and objects can prime us just like exposure to words can. Psychologist Kathleen Vohs completed several experiments into the effects of priming people with money. She used various methods to prime participants subconsciously to think about money, including having them pass by a computer showing a screensaver of dollar bills, and sitting a stack of Monopoly money somewhere in the room.

Vohs found various effects in her different experiments which showed a tendency toward independence and self-sufficiency. In one, participants were given a difficult task to complete and those primed by money persevered almost twice as long on the task before asking for help. In another, participants primed by money were willing to spend less time helping other participants who were confused, or to volunteer their own time.

Money-primed subjects showed a greater preference for being alone and sat further away from their peers than control participants. In a very simple experiment to test helpfulness, Vohs had an experimenter drop a box of pencils on the floor and counted how many pencils a participant picked up. Money-primed people picked up fewer pencils on average than those not primed at all.

How images of faces affect how honest we are

A study in a British university tested how images can prime us for certain behaviours. The experiment took place in an office kitchen which had an “honesty box” where staff could pay for the tea and coffee they consumed. On the wall was a suggested price list. Above the price list, the researchers posted a new image each week for ten weeks, alternating between images of flowers and images of human eyes.


Over the ten week period, the researchers found that when staff were primed by seeing eyes above the price list, they paid almost three times as much as when they saw flowers.

How feeling bad affects our thoughts and actions

Some of the more surprising studies around priming effects relate to how thoughts or actions that make us feel bad can prime us to seek out physical cleanliness.

For instance, after being asked to think about something you’re ashamed of, you’re more likelyto complete w_ _ h and s_ _ p as wash and soap instead of wish and soup. Another experiment found that after merely thinking about stabbing a coworker in the back, participants were more likely to buy soap, disinfectant or detergent than other items like batteries or gum.

One experiment took this a step further and asked people to lie to a hypothetical stranger either via email or in a phone message. The lie would supposedly help the participants career, while harming that of the stranger. Those who lied via email were not only more likely to buy cleaning products, but more likely to buy soap than mouthwash, and to pay more for it. Those who lied in a voicemail were more likely to buy mouthwash than soap.

Priming effects in normal life

By now you’re probably thinking this all sounds bizarre and funny, and there’s no way it applies to you. I thought that too. In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains that we all tend to think that priming effects don’t concern us—but we’re wrong:

… disbelief is not an option. The results are not made up, nor are they statistical flukes. You have no choice but to accept that the major conclusions of these studies are true. More important, you must accept that they are true about you.

Of course, unlike in an experimental situation, real life is full of constant stimuli that can influence us in many ways, so it’s much harder to understand our own reactions to priming. That’s not to say we can’t use this information for our own benefit, however.

Here are just a few ways we could try applying priming effects to our lives in the hopes of positive effects:

Prime yourself for creativity with a glimpse of blue or green

Studies have shown that green and blue can improve performance on creative tasks. You could try adding some blue or green artwork to your creative space, or painting a wall in your office one of these colors.

Prime yourself with related words

If you’re struggling to come up with new ideas around a particular theme, try priming yourself with relevant words to start with. Reading or writing a list of words related to your project might make new ideas come easier in your brainstorming stage.

Remove money-related priming for a more helpful group

If you’re working in an office, classroom, or another group situation, try taking note of what priming effects might be in place without you realizing. Are there references to or images of money lying around? Or perhaps there’s a theme of words or images relating to a certain idea, like improving performance or avoiding mistakes. Try removing these items and testing how they affect your team’s helpfulness towards each other.

Image credits: Smarty Brain, Melissa Bateson, Daniel Nettle, and Gilbert Roberts

Special thanks to Eugene Sevinyan for recommending the original article.


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