What Is Priming and How It Affects Your Life

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Priming is the way your brain processes certain stimuli and impulses subconsciously. These stimuli can be words, pictures or scents. Everything that you can perceive with your senses.

Since priming happens in the subconscious, it leads to the fact that many people aren’t aware of it. Yet you can use this mechanism to your advantage. For example, you can prime your mind to think positively, to live stress-free, or just to be happy.

The law of attraction is also a great example of how you can prime yourself for success.

In this article, we’ll explain what priming is and what priming effects there are. Afterward, we’ll talk about the impact priming has on your everyday life and explain it further with a few examples. Then we’ll show you the different types of priming and finish the article with the three best priming studies.

Jump ahead to any of the sections below:

What Is Priming?

Red ball with black background

Priming is a term used in psychology to describe how your mind processes a sequence of stimuli. A stimulus can be a smell, a picture, a word or something completely different.

Each stimulus triggers a reaction in your memory. Priming is especially interesting when it comes to a sequence of stimuli. Each stimulus is influenced or primed by a previous stimulus, also called a prime

Each prime activates a reaction in your subconscious and thus influences the follow-up stimulus and your reaction to it. The time span between the stimuli does not have to be immediate and can last several hours or even days.

Simply put: images, smells and other things that you have previously perceived will influence your decisions without you realizing it.

Let’s say, for example, you and your friend are sitting in a cafĂ©. While your friend is looking at the menu, you look at the emergency exit sign and the fire extinguisher. Your friend didn’t see that because he focused on the menu. On your way home, you both decide to walk. You’ll notice that your buddy is walking faster than you.

That’s because you did prime yourself negatively on the stimuli “danger” and “fire” by looking (even if only briefly) at the emergency exit and the fire extinguisher. By doing so, you stimulated your subconscious (primed mind) to prepare yourself for danger, which caused you to unconsciously walk slower.

We use the following priming definition:

“Priming is the way the mind deals with a sequence of stimuli. Each stimulus is influenced by a subsequent stimulus and triggers a reaction in the subconscious. Primes influence our conscious decisions triggered by our subconscious.”

Priming Effect, Impact and Examples

You don’t have to study psychology to be able to make use of priming. There are many situations in everyday life in which you can prime both yourself and others. Here are a few examples to understand the meaning of it.

Priming Example 1

Take a few minutes every morning, for example, to process your thoughts and emotions and consciously prime yourself. You can do this by using positive affirmations, mantras or the law of attraction

Priming Example 2

Another example is to try to formulate all written communication, such as e-mails or slack messages, in a positive way. Do this by putting positive priming words in your messages and avoid negative ones:

  • Positive priming words: helpful, goal, team, organized, together, efficient, effective
  • Negative priming words: tasks, stress, pressure, hurry

Let’s say you schedule an invitation to an upcoming meeting. You know upfront that the meeting won’t be long enough to cover all topics. When formulating the invitation, you mainly use positive priming words.

“It would be helpful if everyone would please define their goals for the meeting in advance so that we can all together profit from it and use it as effectively and efficiently as possible”

instead of:

“In order to avoid time pressure and overlook tasks in all haste and stress, I would ask you to prepare for the upcoming meeting”

Have you noticed how different these two sentences actually are? While your first email awakens team spirit with the positive words “helpful”, “goals”, “effectively” and “efficiently”, the second email is a perfect example of negative priming.

Priming Example 3

People in meeting listening to moderator

Let’s continue the example: The team that received a positive email may even get through the meeting faster and be better prepared than the other team.

This is proven by science. 

Even if you don’t actively think about it, your subconscious prepares you and itself in advance for the meeting. In the positive-formulated email, it does this in the most positive way possible, while with the negative e-mail it prepares you for stress, haste, and pressure.

Your subconscious processes stimuli in many different ways, which is why you can use priming in various ways. Many people are not aware of how much influence they actually have over themselves and how much they are controlled by their own subconscious.

Priming Example 4

You will find many priming examples in sales. Here’s one specific. Good salespeople try to prime clients positively on the word “yes” during a sales call. In doing so, they ask as many questions as possible, of which they can safely say that the customer will answer them with a yes. This increases the chances that the salesperson will come out of the sales talk with a positive result.

You don’t necessarily have to prime your mind with words. In the end, priming is present everywhere because you are exposed to stimuli all around you. Even if, for example, you start your working day in the morning in a tidy office, you are priming your mind to order and structure.

Different Types of Priming

Since we are exposed to different stimuli every day, there are different types of priming. Psychology distinguishes mainly between the following ones:

Perceptual Priming

Perceptual priming makes your mind combine things that have a similar shape. Even words that look similar and are completely different in meaning can be a prime. Like “goat” and “boat”. The main difference between perceptual priming and semantic priming is that perceptual priming primes with the form and semantic priming with the context.

Let’s stick to the example with “goat” and “boat”. Repeat both words a couple of times. Now, please complete the following word C_ _ _

Did you say coat? If you did, you were perceptually primed.

Semantic Priming 

This kind of priming uses two words that are related to each other conceptually, such as “hat” and “head”. Since they are conceptually and contextually related, they create a priming effect. Semantic priming is based on the meaning of a stimulus and is complemented by semantic tasks.

When you are primed on a particular word, your response time to similar words or objects is reduced because your mind is already prepared.

If you’re primed on the words “hat” and “head”, for example, it’s more likely to make you think of words like “hair”, “face” or “cap”. 

Positive and Negative Priming

Positive and negative priming refers to the priming of both types of emotions, positive and negative, such as anger, hate, love or compassion. It’s scientifically proven that negative priming slows down the processing of the subsequent stimulus, while positive priming accelerates it. 

In simple words, negative thoughts make you think slower.

For this example, see our studies at the upcoming paragraph “The 3 Best Priming Studies”.

Affective Priming

This form of priming relates to emotional states. If the prime represents a positive feeling, then your mind is more likely to make positive decisions and vice versa. This is one of the reasons why positive affirmations work so well.

Subliminal Priming

Subliminal priming activates stimuli below your sensing point, such as images that are displayed for 100 milliseconds.

The 3 Best Priming Studies

As this topic is very scientific and deeply rooted in psychology, we found countless scientific studies. After researching many priming studies ourselves, we would like to show you the following three studies. These show the effects of priming specifically well.

Priming Study 1: Temperature and Judgment

Coffee mug with a smile

The first study we would like to highlight was conducted by Yale University in 2008. It consisted of two parts and was intended to reveal the connection between physical warmth and judgment. In both experiments, the participants were divided into two test groups. 

In the first experiment, both test groups should evaluate people and their characteristics on the basis of certain information. Before the actual experiment began, the participants were casually asked to hold a cup of coffee from a researcher. One test group had warm coffee and the other cold coffee.

The participants who held the warm coffee described the person “warmer” on average and more positively than those who held the cold one. The scientists didn’t find any differences in the participants’ responses to characteristics that had nothing to do with the person’s “warmth” or ” heartiness”.

In the second experiment, the participants of one test group held warm healing packs, while the second test group was given cold ones. Both groups then had to evaluate the healing packs. 

As a reward, the participants were allowed to decide whether they would rather have a gift for themselves or a voucher for a friend.

Those who held the warm pack in their hands were more likely to ask for the voucher for someone else, while the participants with the cold pack were more likely to keep the gift for themselves.

Both experiments show that physical temperature influences not only the way you perceive others but also your own behavior. By priming the test groups once with heat and once with cold, different feelings and character traits were activated in the participants. 

The participants who were primed with heat were nicer, kinder and generally viewed others in a more positive light. Those who were primed with coldness were more likely to see bad traits in others and were selfish.

Your entire behavior and the way you see others can be influenced by something as simple as a warm cup of coffee.

Read more about the study here.

Priming Study 2: Age and Walking Speed

In 2012, two studies were carried out at the Université Libre de Bruxelles to find out if and how priming affects walking speed.

120 students between 20 – 34 years participated in the first experiment. They were told that they should take part in a simple French test in which they should construct complete sentences from chains of words.

To measure the results of the study in a reliable way, infrared sensors were installed in the corridor leading to the room where the French test took place. First, the speed of the participants walking to the room was measured and compared with their speed after the French test.

One group got a list with age-related words (“retirement”, “pension”), while the other group got a list of neutral words.

Part of the task was to rearrange 30 coded sentences consisting of four to five words. The word that didn’t fit into the sentence should be crossed out. The no-prime list of words was exactly the same as the list that contained the primes. The only difference: the priming words were replaced with neutral ones. 

The result: the walking speed of the students didn’t change after the priming.

Thereupon a second experiment was carried out, with almost identical conditions. In the second test, the people supervising the test and handing it out to the students were also primed. They were told that the walking speed of the students would change. 

As a result, the second experiment actually showed a connection between priming and walking speed.

Read more about the study here.

Priming Study 3: Stanford

Students throwing their hats in the air

The third and final study we would like to present to you is a Stanford study from 2006, in which 70 students were subliminally primed to analyze the impact of priming on upcoming exams. The experiment took place just a few days before an intermediate exam.

The students were divided into small groups and each student was placed in front of a computer. In random order, words were displayed on the left or right side of the screen for a few milliseconds. The task for the students was to tell on which side of the screen the words were displayed.

For the first test group, words related to intelligence (intelligent, smart, brilliant, clever, talented, perceptive) were displayed, while the other group had to classify neutral words.

Students who were primed on intelligence achieved better results in the intermediate exam than students who had to classify neutral words. 

Particularly interesting in this study is the fact that the priming lasted for several days.

Read more about the study here.

Conclusion

Whether it’s coffee, the wall color of your dining room or something else: Priming is real and the effects have been proven by science many times. 

One awesome thing about the priming theory is that it’s not just that: a theory. With a primed mind, you can achieve great things by only adjusting a few things in your everyday life. For example, choosing the right words when writing emails. Even though priming can be both positive and negative, it’s a useful tool to achieve everything you want in life.

You can, for example, also use priming for your life goals.

Many people don’t realize how much they’re actually influenced by their subconscious. In fact, their lives and reality are shapeable, but you have to be aware of the fact that you can bend your own reality first, in order to do so.

With targeted priming and mindfulness for your own thoughts and actions, you can achieve exactly this. 

If you want to learn more about mindfulness, subscribe to our newsletter below. We are looking forward to you. Thanks for reading.

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