Practical Priming

I recently described the concept of priming, along with some research that has been done to demonstrate this effect.  This article follows directly from that one, so if I mention something that I ‘discussed earlier’, it’s in there. The priming studies are all very interesting, but the question now becomes, how are we going to use priming to our advantage?  Here are some suggestions.

1) Figure out what you want to be primed for (duh)

Priming activates certain traits and behaviours, which are usually associated with a certain stereotype. For this reason, this isn’t an exercise you can do without direction, like meditation for instance. With meditation, you just do it, then various benefits come. With priming, you need to know what benefit you want first, and then work out how to prime yourself for it.

2) Out with the old

The next step should be awareness of what we are currently being primed for.  In your mind, go over the locations you frequent, try to work out what what stereotypes are associated with the things you perceive.  What traits belong to these stereotypes?

If you identify something that might prime you for a behaviour you don’t want, try remove that thing for week or so, and see what happens (please use your head when doing this; don’t throw your dog out because you think it will prime you to pee on lamp posts).

What do you regularly read, and what is that priming you for?  What about the TV shows you watch (including the adverts). One other piece of advice is to stop reading newspapers! Apart from the sports section, that is. Given what you now know about priming, read the next newspaper you buy with a careful eye. Notice:

  • What you’re being primed for
  • Whether any of the information is really worth knowing.
  • What purpose headlines like “Terror” “Stabbing” “Crime” and “Recession” serve.

3) In with the new

The third step is to work out what you can add to your environment to prime the goal or behaviour you want. Many self-help authors recommend putting your goals and targets up on the wall, in written form.  For example, Steve Pavlina and his Belief Board. We saw in the last article that exposure to written words can prime behaviours associated with those words, and also that the longer the longer the exposure to a prime, the bigger the effect; so this technique should work well.  The only problem I can think of, is that we tend to get a bit blind to things after a while, so maybe move them around, change the colours, or reword them fairly regularly.

Schwarzenegger, Zane, Draper, Gold's Gym

The basic premise is to douse your environment with words, images, and anything else you can think of that relate to the target you’re aiming for.

If you’re planning to bulk up, then maybe put pictures of gym equipment and Arnold Schwarzenegger around your house. If you’re a student, words and pictures related to professors and intellectuals.

It’s probably best to put some time aside and really think about what primes would work for you, and come up with many of them. Remember the immersion study by Ellen Langer, which made the elderly men younger? This was a full immersion into life 20 years earlier. The carpet, appliances, everything. And this study had a great effect on the participants. It seems like the more primes, the better.

4) Other activities

In Langer’s experiment, it wasn’t just the environment that was manipulated, it was the behaviour of the participants. How they acted, how they spoke, what they spoke about; everything was done in the present tense, as though it was 1959. This might well have played a part too – we know that changing self-talk can influence behaviour and emotions, so it’s not such a large stretch of the imagination that this would work as a prime too.

So self-talk in the present tense about the goal you want to reach (ie, how you would self-talk as if it were already reached) is worth trying, as is changing your actions to be in line with the goal, though there will be obvious limitations to how and where you can do this.

What about the writing exercise from the professors/hooligans study? People spent 5 minutes listing the behaviours, lifestyle and appearance of professors and hooligans, which made the better and worse at general knowledge tests, respectively.  In another study. people were asked to write about themselves as they would like to be, which had the result of making them happier. (1)  This seems like another exercise worth doing, then, especially when done right before a task related to your goal (eg writing about professors before an exam, writing about an Olympic sprinter before a race.   What stereotype is most conducive to the goal you are aiming for, or the task ahead of you?

Remember that the more time people spent on this task, the stronger the effect.

I should also mention visualisation.  There’s potentially a cross-over between this line of research and the popular self-help technique, the “Law of Attraction” (eg., The Secret).  Could mentally visualising a certain goal serve to prime us to adopt behaviours favourable to that goal?  I’m currently working on a separate article on the evidence behind visualisation, but for now, based on what I’ve read so far, I’d say yes; it’s definitely worth a try.

Some things to keep in mind

The experiments measured the effect of the primes directly after the participants were primed. I can’t imagine people who had been primed with ‘elderly’ stereotypes walking slowly all day and all night after that point: so maybe the best time to apply a prime is right before a specific task.  I always find I work harder if I spend 30-60 minutes reading Atlas Shrugged, a book where the main characters love their work and do it all day long.

A limitation here is that we can’t really generalise beyond what the research actually says.  There’s evidence you can become younger, ruder, smarter, more physically persistent, and so on, but we can’t just take these findings and generalise them to any particular goal.  The things people did as a result of their primes were all things they had done before; knowledge structures they already possessed becoming active. However, I do think it’s worth trying these techniques on just about any goal.

A final point to make is that the effect of priming might be cumulative.  As we discovered earlier with the basketball video, priming reduces our input.  Therefore the range of things we can potentially be primed by is reduced also.  It is possible that you could get into an upward or downward spiral, by receiving a prime and then being more likely to be primed by something similar again in the future.

So perhaps a key to positive priming is regular and consistent priming, until you reach such a critical mass as the majority of the primes you receive on a daily basis are conducive to your goals.  This is just a guess though; don’t quote me on it.

To conclude, I hesitate to say you “will” get a certain response from the priming.  All I can say for sure is what the evidence has shown.  But I think there’s enough evidence to recommend the use of this technique, at the very least, just as a personal experiment.


(1) Lyubomirsky, S., Sousa, L., & Dickerhoof, R. (2006). The costs and benefits of writing, talking and thinking about life’s triumphs and defeats. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(4), 692-708.

Gold’s Gym image credit: d_vdm

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