It’s magic! It’s a subliminal trick! It’s… priming?

How subtle environmental cues can affect whether we make progress on our intentions or not.

It’s a well-established fact that the words in our immediate environment can make us particularly cognizant of the same or similar words in our larger surroundings (imagine: you’re strolling down the street listening to Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” and suddenly the words “rain” and “umbrella” pop out as you pass a sign for outdoor gear on sale).

But in 1996, New York University researchers John Bargh, Mark Chen, and Lara Burrows published an article that redefined just how influential words can be.

In the classic experiment, participants rearranged scrambled words to form sentences. In the control group, the sentences were random. In the experimental group, the sentences contained words relating to the elderly (“old, wise, wrinkle, bingo.”) After completing the task, the experimental group walked out of the testing room more slowly than those in the control set.

What?! The researchers had the same reaction. Could something so subtle really have such a significant effect? It did, and it sparked tons of research on just how much we might be unknowingly influenced by what’s around us.

This phenomenon is called priming: when something in the environment activates associations in the mind, influencing one’s perceptions, behaviors, and goals. Not to be confused with subliminal messaging, priming occurs due to direct, conscious interaction with something in your environment; there are no hidden words or images.

Subsequent studies found that it’s possible to prime using all kinds of stimuli (not just words) and for everything from behavior to goal-setting to judgement. In 2007, the New York Times cited an experiment that primed through touch.


Priming can help you put your best foot forward. (Photo via Toby Bradbury on Flickr’s Creative Commons.)

Simply holding a cup of hot or iced coffee influenced the way subjects would later judge a person in a story: those who had held hot coffee rated the character as warm, friendly and social; those who had held iced coffee rated the same person as colder, more selfish, and less sociable. Wow.

Priming and you

These studies have a significant “whoa!” factor that alone makes them worth sharing, but they also have implications for the world of social impact.

It would be great to start plastering your world with primes to make yourself kinder or more productive. But, there’s a catch to all this—you can’t prime yourself. As soon as you become aware of a prime, it no longer works. In fact, even if you’re just a tiny bit suspicious that you’re being manipulated, primes have no effect. C’est la vie.

Unfortunately, priming others won’t fly either. As long as you know who’s in your own “prime” and “control” groups, you’re likely to subconsciously alter your behavior, which affects the results. Primes need to be facilitated by a “blind” third party in order to work.

So… is this really real?

If you’re raising your eyebrows in doubt, you’re not alone—there is much controversy about the validity of priming studies. The Chronicle of Higher Education has a great review on both sides of the debate, but the social psychology jury is still out.

Part of the reason primes are so hard to create (and replicate) is that they have to be delivered in an environment that convincingly simulates “real life”—a tall order in a lab setting. In addition, newer studies have uncovered many layers to priming. In a variation on the elderly-prime study, for example, researchers found that subjects who had good feelings in general about older folks walked more slowly, while those who didn’t actually walked faster.

What you can do

Why did you just read this whole article, then? Because, priming—even if it’s ultimately judged more fluke than phenomenon—still offers some worthwhile takeaways. Here are three tips on how to create a prime-friendly environment:

1. Be more visual.

Even though primes don’t work when we’re aware of them, embedding positive images into our environments can only help. Not only is “happy decor” a spirit-lifting sight for us, it can also work as a positive prime for newcomers to our space.

Is your nonprofit looking to hire? By creating a work environment that visually promotes cooperation instead of competitiveness, you’re more likely to bring out the best in your candidates and employees. Think, for example, about putting out some flowers, or hanging up happy pictures of people your organization works with.

2. Watch your talk.

Think about the way you speak. Do you use more negatives or positives? Instead of asking, “What didn’t work? Why did it fail? What problems do we need to fix?” Try asking, “What could we improve? What did we learn? What solutions can we try?”

Positive language can inspire people whether or not they’re conscious of its use. It also has the effect of bringing you up in the process, in the same way that smiling—even if you’re unhappy—can brighten your mood.

3. Take stock of your environment.

It might be a bummer that we can’t prime like some research pros, but the flipside is that we don’t have to let ourselves be primed, either. The next time you notice yourself losing patience or feeling feisty, take a moment to truly notice your surroundings.Would you feel the same way if you were surrounded by sunshine, ice cream, and puppies?

By becoming more conscious of our environments, we can help ward off that chilled-coffee effect, and see the strangers around us for their potential warmth instead.

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