Priming in psychology is a phenomenon that occurs when exposure to a stimulus influences our thoughts and behaviour in response to another succeeding stimulus. When this happens on a subconscious level, it’s called subconscious priming.
In simpler words, when you’re exposed to a piece of information, it has a potential of influencing your response to a succeeding piece of information. The first piece of information sort of “flows” into the subsequent piece of information and, therefore, influences your behaviour.
Say you’re seeing a person you really want to be in a relationship with and they tell you, “I want to be with a person who is a vegetarian and who cares a lot about animals.”
Moments later, you tell them how much you love animals, narrating a story about how you once rescued a cat that was tied and hung upside down on a tree limb by its vicious owner.
This is an example of conscious priming. The first piece of information, “care toward animals” primed you into displaying behaviours that showed care toward animals. You were totally aware and conscious of what you were doing since you were seeking to impress your potential partner.
When this same process happens outside of our awareness, it is called subconscious priming.
You’re playing a word-building game with a friend. You are both required to think of a five-letter word that starts with “B” and ends with “D”. You come up with “bread” and your friend comes up with “beard”.
When priming occurs subconsciously, you two will have no idea why you guys came up with those words, unless you do some deep self-reflection.
If we rewind back a little, we start to gain some insights.
An hour before hanging out with your friend, you had ‘bread’ and butter with tea at your sister’s place. Just before playing the game, your friend saw a ‘bearded’ man on TV talking about spirituality.
Even if we reflect deeply on our actions, we may not be able to detect unconscious priming when it happens. This is because there are hundreds or maybe thousands of pieces of information that we come across on a day-to-day basis.
So figuring out the ‘primer’ behind our current behaviour can often be a difficult, nearly impossible task.
How subconscious priming works
When we are exposed to a new piece of information, it remains in our consciousness for a while till it fades away to deeper levels of the subconscious.
When a new stimulus demands that we access information from our mental memory reserves, we tend to access information that’s still floating in our consciousness, thanks to its recency.
Consequently, the information we access influences our response to the new stimulus.
Think of your mind as some kind of a pond you’re fishing in. Just as you’re more likely to catch fish that are near the surface, because you can easily assess their movement and position, your mind can more easily access information that is near the surface as opposed to the information buried deep into the subconscious.
When you prime a person with some idea, it usually doesn’t last long because not only does the primer eventually fade away into the subconscious but we are also constantly bombarded with new information that in all likelihood can subvert or overcome the original primer and create new, more powerful and readily accessible primers.
Examples of priming
Priming seems like a concept straight of a futuristic, sci-fi, psychological thriller in which some diabolical mind-controlling villain controls his enemies, making them do all kinds of weird, embarrassing stuff. Nonetheless, instances of priming are very common in our everyday lives.
Self-observant writers often notice that they incorporate ideas into their writings that they recently picked up from somewhere and were floating about in their heads. It may be an example that they read a couple of days ago, a new word they came across the previous night, a witty phrase they recently heard from a friend, and so on.
Similarly, artists, poets, musicians and all sorts of creative people are also prone to such effects of priming.
When you buy or think of buying a new car, you’re likely to see that car more often on the road thanks to priming. Here, the original car that you bought or were thinking of buying acted as a primer and guided your behaviour of noticing similar cars.
When you eat a piece of cake, you’re likely to eat another one because the first one primes you to eat another one, which in turn primes you to eat another one, which in turn primes you to eat another one. We’ve all been through such guilt-ridden cycles and priming plays a significant role in such behaviours.