The Priming Effect: Part 1- Make it Work For You

Jeanette Helen Wilson

Published Wed 08 Jun by Jeanette Helen Wilson

In Part One we'll discuss what priming is, how powerful it can be in influencing people’s attitudes and behaviours, and how it can also be used to give people a subtle nudge in your direction when it comes to buying online.

Part One

Your website is often your potential customers’ first glimpse of you. So priming them to feel positive about their first ‘meeting’ with you, and giving a good first impression is all-important.

What is Priming?

A well-known psychological phenomenon, priming means that: ‘Exposure to a stimulus influences behaviour in subsequent, possibly unrelated tasks’ Raluca Budiu, Nielsen Norman Group

The Power of Repetition

Repeating a prime is regarded as positive priming. The more exposure a person has to, say, an advert, the more likely it is that they will respond to it. Research has shown that a small advertisement that is placed consistently in a local newspaper week after week generates more leads than a full-page ad placed in the same newspaper on just one occasion.

Brand recognition owes its power to repetition too. The more one is exposed to a brand, over time, in many different settings, the more familiar it will become. At the time that you see the adverts or the brand name and logo, you may not want to buy the product, but by the time you come to buy a product in their line, you will already have been primed to go for their brand above others.

Human beings crave a feeling of security and safety. Though we may not consciously see brands as providing us with security, the more consistent a business’s approach, the more trustworthy they show themselves to be, the more people will be attracted to their products and services.

A great example of the power of the priming effect is politics, particularly the way it is reported in the media. The more an issue is raised and talked about, the more it will be on people’s radar. At the moment, the heated issues are the EU and Syria. These issues are talked about in newspapers, on TV news and on social media, and so their power grows. The national consciousness, and therefore the way they vote, is shaped by priming. For good or bad, this is an extremely powerful psychological phenomenon. 

Psychological Studies Related to Priming

 All of the studies that have been conducted on the psychological power of priming show unequivocally that once we are primed to follow a certain path, we generally do. The suggestions of priming can be so subtle we don’t even consciously notice them. Many would argue that this is a disturbing phenomenon, and indeed historically the priming effect has been used to control and manipulate whole swathes of people. Examples of this have been seen where propaganda films were rife on the lead-up to the Second World War.

In the poster above, which was designed to encourage American citizens to join up to fight against Nazi Germany in the Second World War, there is a clear message of persuasion. The more people saw these types of posters on billboards, the more they would start to think about its message and internalise it.

How Priming Can Alter Attitude

John A. Bargh, Lara Burrows and Mark Chen showed in a study of students that priming can actually change someone’s behaviour towards other people. They gave three groups of students some words to unscramble. The first group received some neutral words. The second were given words that signified rudeness and the third group had words that signalled politeness.

After each group of students had completed this task, they were sent to find the test administrator for the second part of the study. Unbeknown to them, finding the test administrator was actually the second, and main, part of the study. The test administrator, when each group of students found them, were engaged in a conversation with another person. The students were being tested for their behaviour once they saw that the test administrator was engaged in a conversation with someone else.

Amazingly, the second group of students, who had unscrambled words that related to rudeness and impatience, were far more likely to interrupt the test administrator’s conversation than the other two groups. While the neutral group interrupted 37% of the time, those who had been ‘primed’ to be polite did so only 17% of the time. The results for the group who had been primed with words of impatience and rudeness were astounding. They interrupted 63% of the time!

How Priming Can Affect Behaviour

A study in France by Celine Jacob and Nicolas Guegen in 2012 showed that priming is so powerful, it can even make us part with our money willingly!

The study proved that altruism, the quality of giving with no ulterior motive, can be encouraged through subtle priming.

The study was conducted in a local restaurant. None of the participants knew they were taking part in a study, so they were not biased towards acting in a particular kind of way. A third of the participants were given bills that had an ‘altruistic’ message on it: ‘A good turn never goes amiss.’ Another third of the participants were given a neutral saying: ‘He who writes reads twice.’ 

Before the study was conducted, passersby who had been asked to read the ‘altruistic’ quote had rated it more altruistic than the neutral quote.

The final third of the participants, the control group, were given bills that had no quote at all on them.

Jacob and Guegen controlled the variables that might affect the outcome by choosing a restaurant that had more locals than tourists, and conducting the study at lunchtime, where people are more likely to eat on their own. They didn't tell the waiting staff who were giving out bills which group they would be serving, as prior knowledge of this may have affected their level of service or friendliness.

The study found that those who had been given bills that had an altruistic quote at the bottom were twice as likely to give an extra tip than those who had a neutral quote or no quote at all.

This shows that positive priming can influence people to be more generous.

So we’ve discussed what priming is and how powerful it can be in influencing people’s attitudes and behaviour. While it has been used negatively, particularly in the world of propaganda and politics, it can also be used to give people a subtle nudge in your direction when it comes to buying a product or service.

In part 2, "The Priming Effect" we'll be showing you how you can put this into practice.

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