The Power of Priming

Can you get someone to be more helpful or walk more slowly or spend more money without them even knowing it? Scientists say you can if you understand the science of cognitive priming. Priming is when we expose someone to something that influences their behavior later on — without that individual being aware that the first thing guided their behavior. It is one of the unconscious ways our memories work when we’re identifying words, objects, tasks, or situations at hand. Basically, priming means activating a specific part of your brain, so you’re more likely to notice something that you might otherwise overlook.

For example, having someone read specific words can prime them to act on the meaning of that word. For example, if I ask you to alphabetize the words carefully, studious, thoroughly, and diligent, you’d be more likely to read this post thoroughly and more carefully.

In 1996, researcher John Bargh conducted an experiment with three groups of participants.

  1. The first group had the “Rude Condition” and had to unscramble a list of rude words like bold, aggressive, disturb.
  2. The second group, called “Polite Condition” had a series of polite words like patient, respect, and respectful.
  3. The last group, the “Neutral Condition”, had words that were neither polite nor rude.

When a participant was done unscrambling words, they were instructed to walk down the hallway and tell the researcher they were finished. However, the researcher would be in a long fake discussion with another researcher when the participant arrived. The experiment was to test how long it would take for each group to interrupt the researcher to tell him that they were done.

Within 10 minutes, 60% of the rude group had interrupted, while only 40% of the neutral group and 20% of the polite group had interceded.

This is a very simple experiment, with a very powerful lesson. It demonstrates that people can be subconsciously primed to act differently.

Priming effects offer insight into how the brain stores information in memory and how it uses that information. Research shows that the brain is adapted to more readily process certain kinds of information after being exposed to something related. It’s always hard at work in the unconscious. It’s a common marketing ploy, and most of the time we aren’t even aware of it, but it is powerful enough to influence our behavior.

For example, Apple has masterfully cultivated a brand personality synonymous with nonconformity and creativity. Researchers found that priming people with an Apple logo made them think more creatively in a simple task on ‘unusual uses for a brick’, while people primed with an IBM logo produced less creative results. The same study found that people primed with the Disney logo behaved more honestly than those primed with the E! logo. (If this kind of stuff geeks you out, you can find the study here.)

Priming can be used for good or evil. Keep these simple tips mind the next time you want to set people up for success.

  • Use positive priming words like efficient, together, helpful, goal, well-organized, and team.
  • Avoid negative priming words like stress, pressure, tighten, rush, and tasks.

This is not tricky or subversive, it is just expressing what you want to happen with the correct words.

And if you enjoyed this Neuro Nugget, you might also enjoy this one: 


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

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  1. This is fabulous Melissa! I’m all for positive priming!

    Reminds me of the days when as a manager…I sent out “Daily Thoughts” to the customer service team. They would be simple quotes meant to invoke a positive thought. This would hopefully lift their spirits at the beginning of the day and spill over into the service! 😀

    Is this a new intro to your video? I like it!
    Thanks for all this education you keep sharing Melissa! It’s so great to have this added value! Have a great weekend!

    • What a fantastic idea to share a positive daily thought, Paula! I think we often underestimate how much impact those small gestures can have. Thank you for taking the time to read and share your positive thoughts with me today!