On Monday I fell in love with a guy. Did he look like Tom Hiddleston? Nope. Do I even know his name? Negatory. So what was so great about him? He used the word “finesse” in a sentence. Do you have any idea how rare it is to hear someone use that word in an unscripted, real conversation? You might as well know that I have a predisposition for people who use unusual words because I’m a writer. I love words.
Now, while this is all slightly tongue-in-cheek, the fact remains that people have biases. Sometimes we can pinpoint where these biases come from. Experiences from long ago … or not so long ago … have an effect on our emotions. Other biases, however, are harder to dissect. They pop up out of nowhere and can seem so rooted in our culture that we don’t even recognize them.
Being aware of our biases and learning how to “neutralize” them helps us to produce quality, objective work.
Experiments, Emotions, and Effects
In the 1980s, scientists did a series of experiments. They showed a group of people a series of photographs related to the kitchen and then showed them the following word: “so_p.” Most of these people filled in the blank with a “u.” However, when they showed participants photos of bathroom items before showing them that word, the participants filled in the blank with an “a” to make it “soap.”
Essentially, this was a basic experiment in priming. Priming is a process by which actions performed by others affect your subconscious brain. Often, people use priming to elicit deeply felt emotions which, in turn, will prompt certain thought or behavioral processes. Repeated priming can create biases, but it is more likely that priming will uncover deeply rooted biases.
Many times, if you stop to think about priming, you become aware of its effect in your life. For example, it is usually easy to pick out a Target ad on television within the first few seconds. Why? Because you have been primed to associate certain colors, trademarks, and shapes with Target.
Sometimes we are unaware of how we are being “primed.” Recently, a professor named John Bargh conducted experiments on priming at NYU. Malcolm Gladwell describes the process of these experiments in his book Blink: the Power of Thinking without Thinking:
- The students were given a test that required them to create sentences based on a specific set of words.
- Each of these tests had a theme: old age, polite behavior, impatience.
- After completing the test, the students turned in their test to a professor.
- Depending on the subject of the test, the professors would observe certain changes in the behavior of the student.
They discovered that:
- Students who created sentences from words focused on old age would walk out of the classroom markedly slower than they had entered it.
- Those who had tests about politeness would wait patiently, sometimes up to ten minutes, while a professor finished a conversation.
- Those who completed tests that focused on impatience were more likely to interrupt their professor.
In addition to those that Gladwell discusses, another test was done in which two groups of people were individually put into one of two rooms: a business man’s office or a normal living room. Each person was told that they would have to split $10 with a participant. Interestingly, those in the business office were more likely to justify taking more than 50% for themselves and leaving the other participant with less than $5, while those in the living room were more likely to split the money evenly.
This study shows that the information processed by our physical senses is fed to our brains and triggers emotions that stimulate a certain reaction—in this case, the impulse to keep more money.
A World-Wide Tool: Not Just For Psychoanalysts
This isn’t anything new. Word association tests were used as psychological measurements of mental health at one time. Pavlov conditioned (or primed) his dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell. And priming is used in multiple industries:
- magic (sorry to burst the bubble)
Just for fun, take a look at this comedy sketch:
How is priming used in this instance?
As the audience, we are primed by Green-Sweater-Guy and given information that Whitney’s character doesn’t have. Other things, like gestures, accents, tone of voice, and body language prime us.
I have been primed (like Whitney) to think of cannibalism as horrific. The performers know this, but they also know that we, as a general culture, have been primed to like eating beef. Their hope is that combining the two will create an absurd situation that will engender laughter. Why? Because when we find a situation ludicrous, we have been primed to do one of two things: laugh or roll our eyes.
Have You Spoken With Your Subconscious Lately?
While there are many uses for this information, those of us who live in the world of writing can use our understanding of priming in three specific ways:
- Choice of Topic. There might be certain topics or keywords that, because of our nationality, family or local culture, carry bias for us. These biases affect our ability to present a neutral viewpoint. When you get a keyword or topic that you have a natural aversion to, ask yourself, “How have I been primed to view this keyword?” Not only will doing this help you present a neutral or positive view, but it could help you think of the topic in a different way.
- Choice of Audience. When choosing your audience, you need to ask yourself, “How have the readers been primed to view this keyword?” Not everyone has the same experiences with topics that you do. Take a look at personal injury lawyers. Some people might be primed to just suffer through injuries and therefore be more inclined to overlook lawyers as an option. Others might be primed to fight too hard in court and possibly damage their chances of a settlement by making harsh demands. Since you are the writer, you get to pick your audience.
- Choice of Tone. Perhaps the most basic use of priming in this career is with word choice. Countless connotations accompany the various words we include in our writing. While these connotations may be different for everyone (e.g., I can’t stand the word “adore”), there are certain words that usually communicate the same feeling to a majority of people. As you write, ask yourself, “How am I using word choice to prime the reader?” Just like advertisers, we want the readers to associate good feelings with our content.
Everyone has been primed at some point. But as you become more aware of priming techniques that affect you, you’ll be more aware of how the people around you have been primed, as well. This, in turn, will help you to prime them with quality and effective content.