14 December 2012

The Power of Primes, Prototypes and Uniforms

Environment influences are one of the four major sources of human behavior. Most of these influences are completely unconscious. In my view, these environment influences can be categorized into three broad groups: (1) influences of actual physical environments (such as music, interior and exterior design etc.), (2) influences of primes, prototypes and uniforms and (3) choice architecture (manipulations of the choice set out of which an option is chosen).  

In this post I will present the second category, namely influences of primes, prototypes and uniforms.

Priming is a method of influencing thinking processes. It works like this: a person is exposed to a piece of information which can be a word, an image, a story etc. The exposure can be either supraliminal (the person is aware of the exposure) or subliminal (the person is unaware of the exposure). 

The mere exposure to the information influences thinking in the sense that it makes certain mental associations easier to make.  

Let me give you an example. Let’s imagine that you are playing “hangman” and you have a word to complete:

Think for a second of a cafeteria or restaurant…. What is your answer for the missing letter to complete the word?


Most likely it is “U” and the resulting word is “SOUP”.

Let’s take a deep breath and imagine the same word from the “hangman” game:

Now, think of dirty hands for a second…. What is your answer for the missing letter to complete the word?


Most likely it is “A” and the resulting word is “SOAP”.

I guess you can see the difference. When thinking about a restaurant it is much easier to envision the word “soup” and a lot harder to think about “soap”. Similarly, when thinking of dirty hands it is simply more natural to think about “soap” and not about “soup”.

A skeptic will say that this is not important and that it is normal to think of soap and not soup when someone has been thinking of dirty hands. The skeptic is right when saying that it is simply normal to make the association with “soap”. At the same time it is in no way unimportant.

Going back a bit to how people make judgments, namely to the dual-system model (“bird” and “computer” brains) we have to acknowledge two things.

First, a lot of human judgment is made in “bird brain mode” which is associative. This means that exposing people to a piece of information that triggers some associations and not others will lead to certain “bird brain” judgment and not to another. The “soap” – “soup” example is a good illustration of this influence on thinking.  

Second, we know that the “computer” brain interacts with the “bird” brain and one way of interacting is that the “computer” brain works using the inputs provided by the “bird” brain. This means that exposing people to a piece of information that triggers some associations will lead to subsequent judgments made by the “computer” brain based on the associations provided by the “bird” brain. 

For example on your way to work you are passing by a restaurant and this makes your “bird” brain think of soup. When going for lunch with your colleagues your “computer” brain will try to make a decision on what to have for lunch. It is likely that you will have soup and not salad because the “computer” brain will think based on the input of the “bird” brain which in this case is soup. The reason that you will give for your choice could be that you realized that you haven’t had soup for lunch in a long time. However, this is the explanation that your “computer” brain gives in order for your choice to make sense to you and to others.

Now, let’s get away a bit from the “soUp” – “soAp” example. Priming has a considerable history in academic research and there are literally thousands of studies that have investigated the effects of priming. Some studies have investigated how priming alone influences choice and or behavior; other studies have investigated how priming interacts with various personality traits.

Some examples of interactions between priming and personal traits come from Griskevicius, V., Tybur, J.M., Delton, A.W., Robertson, T. E. (2010, 2011). In their studies these authors have demonstrated that exposure to mortality cues led some people to want to have children earlier in life and other people to have children later in life. Similarly, the same exposure to mortality cues made some people more willing to take risks while others less willing to take risks.

Other better known effects of priming concern money. According to the research of Kathleen D. Vohs, exposing people to money (images of money, actual money and money substitutes – Monopoly money) leads to the exhibiting more individualistic behavior. In a bit more detail, people who were primed with money (compared with people who were not) were less likely to ask for help and to help others; they were less inclined to come in contact with other people; when coming in contact with other people they were keeping a larger distance from them. People who were primed with money were more perseverant in difficult tasks.

A very popular example of priming is the study conducted by Brargh, J.A., Chen, M. and Burrows, L. (1996). In this study the researchers asked participants (students) to solve some word puzzles. One group had to solve puzzles that included neutral words, while the second group had to solve puzzles that included words related to old age such as “gray”, “wrinkle”, “bald” etc. The word “old” was never included or mentioned.

The very interesting result of the study was that the (young) people who solved puzzles that included words related to “old” walked slower than the people who solved puzzles that included neutral words. Participants were completely unaware of the influence the words had on their behavior (speed of walking).

A similar example comes from the master thesis of a former colleague from RSM. People who saw on supermarket’s floor small footprints walked faster than people who saw large footprints.

The “old related words” priming example has a more profound meaning. When exposed to words that are related to “old” people started behaving as a “prototype” of an old person would. Very interestingly, when influenced to exhibit a prototypical behavior, people will do so only if they have a positive or neutral attitude towards the prototype. In other words, people who hate “old people” will not walk slower if they are primed with information related to “old-age”; in fact they will walk faster than normal.

Another very nice example of the influences that prototypes have on our behavior is the direct instruction to act like a prototypical character. For example several studies have found that loss aversion is diminished when people are asked to “think like a trader”.

In more “real life” situations we are asked to act like prototypical characters all the time. On very simple example is “Act like a man” or “act like a grown up”.

Uniforms are another element that influences behavior in a similar way with primes. Uniforms have several psychological influences such as group belonging and (sometimes) anonymity. At the same time uniforms have the role of inducing behavior specific to a prototypical character. For example dressing a regular person in a military uniform will make that person act in a more “militaristic” way.

One very important element of prototypical behavior is the information stored in memory with regard to the prototype. In other words, if someone is dressed up like an astronaut that person will behave more like she thinks (knows) an astronaut behaves. At the same time there can be a considerable distance between what a person knows about a prototype and the actual prototype.

One very good example is the behavior of spies. People who are not spies and haven’t gone to “spy school” get their information about spies and their behavior from movies and literature. Actual spies do not necessarily behave as “movie spies”. Now, if we would ask a person to “act like a spy”, most likely she will behave as the spies in the movies do and not as the actual spies do.

Before summing up the topics discussed here, I would like to make a note. Priming effects and influences of prototypes on behavior have two characteristics. First, they are real and robust. Although it is hard to believe that mere exposure to a piece of information or to a prototype changes our behavior, it is nonetheless true. YES! This applies to you too!

Second, these effects on behavior are not necessarily large. Most studies on priming use the experimental methodology which means the comparison between groups exposed to different treatments. When the results of a study say that “people primed with X compared to people who were not primed exhibited more of a certain behavior” it does not mean that the group who was not primed did not exhibit the behavior at all. It means that there was a “statistically significant” difference between the means of the two groups. In more simple language this is “there is a difference that can’t be ignored”.

What we tend to ignore is that even small differences can matter. For example, does priming with X make people spend more money at the mall really matter? What if the average difference between priming and not priming with X is only 50 cents per person? The answer is two folded: first, 50 cents might not matter for an individual; second, 50 cents multiplied by the number of people visiting the mall in a year could be a very considerable amount. Another example is voting. In elections even a few hundred votes may shift the balance.  

To sum up, exposure to primes has the effect that certain mental associations are made more easily. This leads to changes in judgment and behavior and usually the effects of primes are not conscious. People tend to behave in accordance with what they think as being the behavior of a prototypical character. This occurs when one is primed with information that brings to mind the prototype, when one is told to act as the prototype and when one is dressed up in a uniform specific to the prototype. Priming effects are real and robust, but not necessarily large; they are, however, significant.

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Note: this post is partly documented from: Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow Chapter 4. London: Allen Lane. 

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