The Priming Effect and Making The World A Better Place

A couple of months ago, a friend recommended to me the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate. It’s an intriguing read so far and serves as useful small talk topic. But, I wanted something more from it than just watercooler conversation. So, I’ve used some of the insights from the book and applied them to the cause of improvement of our daily lives.

This is the second post in the series. Words in italics are taken directly from the book. You can read the first post here: Ego-Depletion and Why Having a Job You Like Matters


If you have recently seen or heard the word EAT, you are temporarily more likely to complete the word fragment SO_P as SOUP than as SOAP. The opposite would happen if you had just seen WASH. 

This is a Priming Effect. The idea of EAT primes the idea of SOUP, and WASH primes SOAP.

Priming effect takes many forms. If EAT is on your mind, you will recognize the word SOUP quicker if it is spoken in a whisper or written in a blurry font. You will also be primed for other food-related ideas like hungry, cookies, ice cream. If you ate at a wobbly table, you will be primed for 'wobbly' as well. Like ripples in a pond, priming spreads across a network of associated ideas.

Priming is not restricted to concepts and words. Even your actions and your emotions can be primed by events you are unaware of. In an experiment, young students were asked to assemble a four-word sentence from a set of five words (for example, "find he it yellow instantly"). For one group, half the scrambled sentences contained words associated with the elderly, such as forgetful, bald, gray, or wrinkle. After this, the students were sent in an office down the hall for the next task. That short walk was the actual experiment. The time it took to cross the hall was measured for each person. The students who had formed a sentence from words with an elderly theme walked down the hallway significantly slower than the others.

This experiment involves two stages of priming. First, the set of words primes thoughts of old age, even though the word 'old' is never mentioned. Second, these thoughts prime a behavior - walking slowly, which is associated with old age. Afterwards, when the students were questioned, they insisted that nothing they did after the experiment could have been influenced by the words. So, this effect happens without us being aware of it.

This priming phenomenon - the influencing of an action by the idea - is known as The Ideomotor Effect

If after reading the earlier paragraph, you wanted a glass of water, you would have been slightly slower than usual to rise from your chair - unless you dislike the elderly, in which case you might have been slightly faster than usual.

Reverse Ideomotor effect also holds true. If you were walking slowly, you would tend to recognize words like old, wrinkle, or bald faster. So, the age-old advice of smiling in the moments of adversity is quite useful. Just like amusing thoughts make you smile more, smiling more brings amusing thoughts. Acting like you are calm is likely to be rewarded by actual tranquility.



In another experiment, few volunteers were asked to construct a sentence from a selection of money related words ('high a desk salary paying' became a high-paying salary'). Other primes were introduced like a stack of Monopoly money on a table or a computer screen saver with dollar bills floating in the water. The results of this experiment were astounding:

  1. Money primed people became more independent than they would be without the associative trigger. They persevered longer to solve a difficult problem before asking for help, clearly showing increased self-reliance.
  2. Money primed people were also more selfish. They were much less willing to help a fellow participant who was confused about a task. When someone dropped a bunch of pencils on the floor, money primed people helped pick fewer pencils. 
  3. They also showed preference for being alone. Money primed people placed their chair farther apart from others than the ones who weren't primed.

These findings present a profound inference:

In a culture where we are constantly reminded of money, it is shaping our attitude and behavior in ways that we are unaware of and of which we may not be proud.

Another common portrayal of this priming effect is in dictatorial societies where the ubiquitous portraits of the national leader not only convey the feeling that 'The Big Brother Is Watching' but also lead to a reduction in spontaneous thought and independent action.

Some other common priming examples:

  1. Reminding people of mortality increases the appeal of authoritarian ideas. 
  2. Uniforms are the anti-prime of creativity.
  3. Thinking of stabbing a co-worker in the back will make you more inclined to buy soap or disinfectant  than juice, candy or batteries (Feeling that one's soul is stained triggers a desire to clean one's body).

You could react to these studies by disbelieving them. After all, we are all rational beings who think logically and are not affected by such trivial manipulations. But, the fact is that the results are authentic; they are not statistical flukes. The conclusions are true, and more importantly, they are true about me and you. If we were exposed to a dollar bills screensaver, we too would pick up fewer pencils to help a clumsy stranger.



I find the effects of priming astonishing. The profundity and width of its implications in our lives makes my head spin.

The simple act of reading the newspaper in the morning can affect the quality of our day. If you look at the majority of the front page news, it is sensational and often depressing. This is probably the worst way to start your day. It primes us to being more pessimistic and drains out energy for positive action. And as we found earlier, this happens without us being conscious of it.

So, does that mean that we should ignore all the negative happenings of the world? No. What it means is that we should ignore the inconsequential negative stuff. For example, do we really need to read about two celebrities bitching about each other. It doesn't add value to our lives, in fact, if were to accept the priming effect, it is going to make us meaner and drive us to the edge.

I remember an incident a few months back. It was late at night and I was checking Twitter about an event that was shaking up the world. I can't recollect what it was, but safe to say, it elicited extreme reactions from people. And, I was aghast  at the negativity surrounding the event. Random people were writing searing comments and I felt angry just by reading them. I took note of my rising heartbeat and promptly closed the app. Was the mass hysteria necessary? I doubt it.

Gossip, sensationalism and negativity like this is Antifragile ( ref. Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb ) - our attacks on them increase their resilience to obscurity. If we instead chose to deny it our acknowledgement, it will die of its own accord. 

So, can we collectively decide to tone down the frequency of discussions around negative incidents? Instead, why not talk about culture bearers, the ones who move our society forward? For example, instead of talking about a sexist comment by some celebrity, let’s talk about stories of women who have done something outstanding by breaking their traditional boundaries. By doing this, we are not ignoring the women who were disrespected in the first incident. But, we are choosing to bring change by showing the good (priming) instead of condemning the bad. 

If our parents read more stories of people taking unconventional paths, they might find it easier to accept your idea of quitting the job and traveling the world. Or, if we are amazed by a cannabis community celebration ( YouTube Link), perhaps it is time to share our own happy weed stories.  



Based on everything we read so far, 'Be positive' becomes not just a hippy mumbo-jumbo but a practical motto with real effects on our lives. Surround yourself with settings which would encourage the behavior you want to demonstrate. So, instead of reading news in the morning, I listen to good music and exercise. And then, to prime me for writing well, I read a nice book.

A lot of our decisions are impulsive and driven not by a rational, thought out process but by our whims and fancies influenced by external factors. So, if we want our decisions to make us better human beings, shouldn't we put ourselves in situations that make us the best version of ourselves? And if we all decide to do that, the world might just become a better place.

A final suggestion: Try out the priming effect on your own. Perhaps do a small experiment like not reading the newspaper in the morning for a week. Or, starting the day with upbeat music. See for yourself if it makes your day better. And let me know how it goes.

There is a very recent article on Slate which tells a different story on the priming effect. Here's where you can read it: Sad Face

Enjoyed the post? Please consider sharing.  I send post updates and inspiration that primes me for a better day in a fortnightly email. Leave your email address here to be notified.

Read Next: A Romantic's Guide to Finding Focus

Cover Image via Unsplash