[Last Updated January 21st 2024]
Priming allows you to influence both conscious and unconscious thoughts and decision making by altering one’s salient thoughts through exposure to stimuli. Or put more simply, showing someone words or images can potentially influence their thoughts and behaviours. Here we focus on conscious priming, or priming that occurs within conscious awareness. This includes both content/information that we consume (e.g. an advertisement we read) and content/information that we consciously experience but may not attend to (e.g. text or images that we see as we scroll down a website, but do not read or focus on). These conscious primes then influence our thoughts through unconscious processes.

Semantic & Associative Priming

Semantic priming occurs when one concept primes other concepts that are semantically related (conceptually in the same category). For example, if you read the word apple, you might inadvertently prime the word banana (both being fruits). Similarly, associative priming occurs when one concept primes other concepts that are associated with it, such as umbrella and rain. Often, words that are semantically related are also associatively related, such as mouse and elephant (both animals, and both associated through the myth that elephants are afraid of mice). However, associations can be directional. For example, “farm” might prime “dog” (as many farms have dogs), but “dog” might not prime “farm”. Further, culture and life experience influence the effectiveness of primes. Someone who has lived in a city their entire life may not conceptually link dogs with farms, but a farmer on the other hand might immediately shift dogs to the forefront of their mind when they hear the word farm. Importantly, a meta-analysis from Lucas (2000) suggests that semantic priming generally works better when there is also an associative relationship between stimuli.

Affect Priming

Researchers have also argued that priming can influence affect/emotion (see: Fazio, 2001 for evidence and a technical summary). For example, if an individual is primed with the word “happy” their brain may become more attuned with positive thoughts. This in turn can influence perception, judgement, and decision making. However, it is important to recognize that there are a lot of complexities and nuances in respect to the practical application of research in the field of affect/emotion. Thus, any application should be considered experimental, and appropriately tested and analyzed.

Warning: Do Not Trust Articles, Videos, or Books on Priming

Priming research is like the wild west of psychology. Aside from a number of incidents where star researchers were accused of falsifying/misrepresenting data (Bhattacharjee, 2013; Stern, 2023), many priming studies have failed to replicate in expected ways (Doyen et al., 2012; Harris et al., 2013; O’Donnell et al., 2018). Even Nobel Prize winning Economist Daniel Kahneman (2022) has expressed regret for a chapter in his best selling book, Thinking Fast and Slow (Kahneman, 2011), that cited numerous problematic priming studies.

However, the internet is still full of articles on priming that cite these problematic studies as conclusive evidence, without acknowledging the issues surrounding them. As of 2024 this has been further exacerbated by the propagation of AI-derived blog posts that amalgamate incorrect/outdated information for quick SEO benefits. Thus, it has become very difficult to find accurate sources on priming research and strategy without being a specialist in the field. If you decide to look into this topic, make sure you are getting information from credible experts and up-to-date sources.

Applying Priming to Marketing and User Experience Design

The implementation of priming for marketing purposes is somewhat of an art that you will develop over time as you experiment with different brands, ideas, and industries. A “quick and dirty” way to understand priming is to simply ask friends what immediately comes to mind when they hear certain words or view certain images. Thus, before generating marketing content, it helps to list out key words or key images, and determine what information and emotions are associated with them.

Additionally, content can be designed to prime specific ideas at opportune times. For example, a bakery might artificially create the smell of bread outside of their store to prime individuals to crave bread (and many do). In fact, there are entire marketing companies devoted to scent-based marketing. Similarly, sales staff in stores can be trained to ask specific questions that prime individuals towards preference for a desired product with high profit margins. For example, a salesperson at a furniture store might direct customers towards considering natural wood bed frames by asking “are you looking to purchase high quality natural wood? Or metal?” By describing the wood as natural and high quality, many customers will assume the wood bed frames last longer than metal, even though it may not be true.

It is however important to recognize that priming strategies do not exist in a bubble. Every individual has their own cultural nuances, pre-existing beliefs, pre-existing expectations and experiences your brand in a unique context. Thus, it’s important to recognize the many other variables influencing decision making, while at the same time considering the impact that priming may have. It is also important to experiment when possible, and to see how changing primes influences customer decision making.

Practical Examples of Priming

Priming Security on Websites

One of the most effective and consistent uses of priming on websites relates to beliefs about personal data security. Startups quickly realize that they face a hurdle when requesting sensitive personal information or payment information (e.g. a credit card number) on their website. Further, many users are wary about creating new user accounts with accompanying passwords unless absolutely necessary, due to confusion and a lack of trust in how personal data is managed. These beliefs can be better understood by reading Pew Research’s report on how American’s view data privacy (Mcclain et al., 2023). Priming can be used to validate existing beliefs about security (e.g. that companies will try to protect your data), or to generate assumptions pertaining to the safety of personal information. This can often be accomplished with a single statement that emphasizes security, such as “Click Here to understand how we protect your personal information.” Similarly, this can also be accomplished using an image, such as a small picture of a lock next to a password field, or a brand logo from a trusted security company that is being used to protect data. In both these situations, the mere acknowledgement of security is likely to prime assumptions about personal data being secure, negating the vast majority of potential user concerns. One additional consideration is that when payment is involved, it is often beneficial to communicate the ability to use a trusted payment system (like PayPal) prior to the checkout/payment screen. Priming individuals with this information can instill assumptions about legitimacy, as people often assume that scammers would be banned from these platforms (even though that is often not the case).

Humanizing AI Customer Support with Primes

As AI platforms/tools are becoming more integral to business operations, it can be helpful to understand how our perceptions of conversational AI may prime us to interact with it in different ways. This is especially important with respect to automated customer support systems. A study by Pataranutaporn et al. (2023) found that individuals primed to believe a mental health AI they were speaking with was caring, perceived the AI to be more trustworthy, empathetic, and effective than those primed to believe the AI was manipulative or those who viewed the AI as a tool. Additionally, Pataranutaporn et al. (2003) observed a feedback loop whereby belief that an AI was caring led to that belief being reinforced as the individual communicated with the AI. This suggests that humanizing conversational AIs and presenting them as compassionate/caring agents designed to help out a customer may enhance customer experiences. To accomplish this, it might be valuable to give AI systems a human name and avatar alongside a short narrative story of how they were designed to help. However it is important to recognize that research in this field is relatively new, and thus precaution ought to be taken until study results are replicated and applied in various contexts.

Priming Expectations through Advertisements

If your business is using advertisements to attract customers/clients to a website for conversion, it is important to consider what ideas those advertisements are priming. For example, a Google search ad generally only has one or two lines of copy to convey information. If a customer reads this copy prior to clicking a link, the text will make certain information, assumptions, or emotions salient. That in turn will influence how an individual experiences the website. For example, if a company was selling cat food, they might have an ad that lists ingredients and uses words like “luxury” “premium” “delicious” and “healthy.” These words would likely generate assumptions and expectations that this is a high-end product that costs more than traditional cat food. Thus, the website individuals arrive at when clicking these ads needs to take these assumptions into account. For example, if this cat food is not higher priced than normal cat food, the website needs to make that clear. Similarly, if an advertisement for cat food focused on cat health, saying something along the lines of “Don’t let your cat die early from a bad diet” the connected website would need to recognize that individuals clicking the ad may be doing so out of fear for their cat’s wellbeing. If the website only focuses on the product and does not address those fears/emotions that the advertisement primed, customers may be less likely to purchase the product. With this knowledge in mind, advertisements can be crafted to prime specific beliefs or emotions so that a website can focus on reinforcing them (e.g. through congruent imagery) while conveying additional/new information that will help with conversion. As individuals tend not to spend much time reading content on websites, this technique helps optimize the amount of conveyable information in a marketing/sales conversion funnel.

Research Example of Priming

Music and Wine Purchases

One famous priming study by North et al. (1999) was carried out in a suburban United Kingdom supermarket over a two-week period. The researchers set up a display of French and German wine, and played French or German music on alternating days. They found that when French music was played, customers purchased more French wine (40 bottles) than German wine (8 bottles), and when German music was played, customers purchased more German wine (22 bottles) than French wine (12 bottles). When asked, 38 of 44 customers surveyed did not believe the music influenced them in any way (in line with the recognition that priming effects occur at the unconscious level).

It is however important to recognize that some other studies have not been able to replicate this study. For example, Hume et al. (2003) attempted to replicate the study in a wine store, using French and Spanish music in one condition, and Australian and South African music in another. Unlike North et al. (1999), Hume et al. (2003) did not find that music influenced which wine sold more. This however may be an example of how context matters in respect to priming. Individuals visiting a wine store often know what they intend to buy or have specific preferences. However, individuals in a supermarket likely aren’t visiting with the intent to purchase alcohol, but rather choose to purchase alcohol as an impulse-buy due to the display/branding/music.

Works Cited

Bhattacharjee, Y. (2013, April 26). The mind of a con man. The New York Times Magazine.

Doyen, S., Klein, O., Pichon, C. & Cleeremans, A. (2012). Behavioral priming: it’s all in the mind, but whose mind? PLoS one, 7(1), e29081.

Fazio, R. H. (2001). On the automatic activation of associated evaluations: An overview. Cognition and Emotion, 15(2), 115-141.

Harris, C., Coburn, N., Rohrer, D., & Pashler, H. (2013). Two failures to replicate high-performance-goal priming effects. PLoS one, 8(8), e72467.

Hume, L., Dodd, C. A., & Grigg, N. P. (2003). In-store selection of wine--No evidence for the mediation of music? Perceptual and Motor Skills, 93(3, Pt2), 1252-1254.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Penguin Books.

Kahneman, D. (2022, February 24). Adversarial collaboration: An EDGE lecture by Daniel Kahneman [Video]. Edge.

Lucas, M. (2000). Semantic priming without association: A meta-analytic review. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 7, 618-630.

Mcclain, C., Faverio, M., Anderson, M., & Park, E. (2023, October 18). How Americans view data privacy. Pew Research Center.

North, A. C., Hargreaves, D. J., & McKendrick, J. (1999). The influence of in-store music on wine selection. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84(2), 271-276.

O’Donnell, M., Nelson, L. D., Ackermann, E., Aczel, B., Akhtar, A., Aldrovandi, S., Alshaif, N., Andringa, R., Aveyard, M., Babincak, P., Balatekin, N., Baldwin, S. A., Banik, G., Baskin, E., Bell, R., Białobrzeska, O., Birt, A. R., Boot, W. R., Braithwaite, S. R., … Zrubka, M. (2018). Registered replication report: Dijksterhuis and van Knippenberg (1998). Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(2), 268-294.

Pataranutaporn, P., Liu, R., Finn, E., & Maes, P. (2023). Influencing human-AI interaction by priming beliefs about AI can increase perceived trustworthiness, empathy and effectiveness. Nature Machine Intelligence, 5, 1076-1086.

Stern, J. (2023, August 2). An unsettling hint at how much fraud could exist in science. The Atlantic.

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