What is priming? Wield its secret by learning how it controls you

In regione caecorum rex est luscus - In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.  - Desiderius Erasmus

This phrase is often used to convey the idea that even people with limited abilities and opportunities are considered special by those with even fewer capabilities and opportunities. To me, this phrase is particularly relevant to understanding our inability to comprehend our own subconscious thoughts.

Imagine for a moment having an artificial intelligence augment your consciousness. Think J.A.R.V.I.S. from the Iron Man and Avengers movies. It constantly alerts Tony Stark to threats in his environment, giving him real-time information about potential targets and adversaries as well as background information.

How would it feel to have your own J.A.R.V.I.S., always available to assist you?

What if you knew that this hypothetical AI augmentation would not only provide you with constant updates, but it would also influence and control your thinking and actions, often in ways you wouldn't be aware of? Every single decision you make would be influenced, and your perception of the world would be skewed in ways that you cannot even detect.

How would you feel about such an augmentation? It sounds scary, doesn't it?

Often, the real world is stranger than fiction. We do have such a system in our brains, and it affects and controls us in ways that we don't understand and often can't even detect. We call it associative memory. We benefit from it by automatically retrieving concepts that relate to whatever we are focusing on, but it also results in an effect called priming.

As usual, I began this week by writing as much as I could think of on this subject for 25 minutes. An essay was also contributed by a guest writer: my April self. I discovered I had written a brainstorming essay back in April, so I'll combine the two and then add what I discovered when I mined my notes rather than relying on my feeble remembering self.My AI-augmented version of J.A.R.V.I.S. is much less glamorous and efficient than the movie version, but it still gives me superpowers compared to the old days. My "second brain" is mostly made up of text files linked together using the Obsidian app.

What is priming?

Here are my two definitions, first, from April: "The fact that whenever your brain identifies a concept in your environment, it makes connections with everything related to it," and from this morning: "Priming is the tendency to think about certain thoughts based on their relationship to other thoughts."

Those are reasonably good definitions of associative memory, but priming goes beyond that. Now let's take a look at the textbook definition:

Priming is a phenomenon whereby exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention.

Can you see what I missed? Both of my off-the-cuff definitions leave out any reference to stimulus or response. I find this interesting since what drew my attention to priming in the first place was its largely unconscious nature. A 2004 neurology article makes this point very well:

One reason why priming interests cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists is that priming effects can be dissociated from explicit recall and recognition.Schacter, D. L., Dobbins, I. G., & Schnyer, D. M. (2004). Specificity of priming: a cognitive neuroscience perspective. In Nature Reviews Neuroscience (Vol. 5, Issue 11, pp. 853–862). Springer Science and Business Media LLC. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn1534 

In other words, priming works on our brains without us even being aware of it.

It's a fact I've known for some time; I've written about it on this blog before. However, it seems my focus on priming recently has been more on the mechanics than the effects.

While we're still on the subject of definitions, let's get a few more from scientific papers:

Using the analogy of priming a water pump to get the water ready for use, priming in social science research refers to the “activation” of an idea in a person’s mind, readying that idea for use in later activities, such as making a judgment or reacting to someone else’s action.Dillman Carpentier, F. R. (2011). Priming. In Communication. Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0012 

Priming is a nonconscious form of memory that involves a change in a person’s ability to identify, produce or classify an item as a result of a previous encounter with that item or a related item. [It is] a change in a person’s ability to identify, produce or classify an item as a result of a previous encounter with that item or a related item.Schacter, Dobbins, & Schnyer (2004)

Why is this subject worth consideration?

Since priming is a subconscious function of the mind - influencing our thoughts and actions without our conscious awareness - it seems wise to take the time to learn how it works. There are other important reasons to understand priming. Among them is the learning process itself. It seems I have been concentrating lately on that aspect. Back in April, I wrote:

We need to use the natural power of our minds to make new connections in a useful way. That's why language learning is most effective in the context where it is used. For example, you will be more likely to remember and be able to use a word relating to something in an office context if you learn it while in an office.

This morning: 

Because of the way the brain works. It appears that "chunking" and "priming" are related concepts. As a result of thinking about one topic (a chunk), related topics are activated. Otherwise, it would be impossible to engage in a fluent, spontaneous discussion. We would constantly have to stop to retrieve related information. We tend to connect words together easily when we speak because remembering one word triggers memories of similar words. We can fill in the blanks easily when other people speak, even when we don't understand everything they say.

This, I believe, is a crucial aspect of knowledge. How can we truly comprehend the world unless we understand how the lenses through which we view it blur our perception?

In reviewing my notes, I was reminded just how remarkable the priming effect can be. I rediscovered a study I cited more than a year ago. The statement in that study had a profound effect on me at the time, and I am still awed by it when I read it now:

This research has produced unexpected results, showing that subtle, imperceptible primes can produce strong and perceptible changes in behavior.Nolan, J. M., Schultz, P. W., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). Normative Social Influence is Underdetected. In Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Vol. 34, Issue 7, pp. 913–923). SAGE Publications. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167208316691 

It almost sends chills up my spine. Another paper states:

There is an extensive body of research showing that memories unavailable to consciousness nevertheless influence conscious memory and task performance. Such implicit memory is demonstrated in priming experiments.Cramer, P. (2000). Defense mechanisms in psychology today: Further processes for adaptation. In American Psychologist (Vol. 55, Issue 6, pp. 637–646). American Psychological Association (APA). https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066x.55.6.637 

I only made one related statement in my pre-research essay, which now sounds completely understated:

In theory, if you can prime someone you can subconsciously influence them.

On the topic of learning, I found a reference to the Einstellung effect, discovered by Abraham Luchins in 1942 and elaborated in a very technical paper. The article that brought this paper to my attention used a form of the verb to prime in referring to the instructions given to the participants. The same article also introduced me to the related concept of functional fixedness.Luchins, A. S. (1942). Mechanization in problem solving: The effect of Einstellung. Psychological Monographs, 54(6), i–95. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0093502 

Karl Duncker, a German Gestalt psychologist, defined functional fixedness as a mental barrier to using an object in a new way that is needed to solve a problem. We get used to using an object for a particular purpose and fail to realize that it can be used for other purposes. Here's how he demonstrated this effect:

As part of the activity, participants were given a candle, a box of thumbtacks, and a book of matches. They were instructed to attach the candle to the wall so that it would not drip onto the table below.

Duncker found that participants either attempted to attach the candle directly to the wall with tacks or to glue it to the wall by melting it. Almost no one thought of using the inside of the box as a candle holder and tacking it to the wall. They were too fixated on the box's normal function of holding thumbtacks to rethink it in a way that enabled them to solve the problem.

When thumbtacks and an empty tack box were presented a separate items, people were twice as likely to solve the problem as they were when the thumbtacks were given them inside the tack box.Duncker, K. (1945). On problem-solving. In L. S. Lees (Trans.), Psychological Monographs (Vol. 58, Issue 5, pp. i–113). American Psychological Association (APA). https://doi.org/10.1037/h0093599 

Duncker's experiment

The image above shows the items given to the participants of the study at the top and the desired outcome below.

It appears that priming in this instance is more of a hindrance than a help.

Answers to my questions

Here are the questions I wrote down before starting research for this article. Let's see how well I was able to find answers to my questions using references in my notes.

  • What other concepts are connected?
  • Is there research about the effects of priming on self-concept?
  • What are some surprising effects of priming?
  • How can we prime ourselves in other positive ways?
  • Are the results replicable?
  • How is priming related to cognitive biases?

Let's start with this one:

Can priming lead to changes in one's self-concept?

If you need a refresher on what self-concept is, go here.

The priming technique has been used frequently in experiments concerning power perception, that is, how one perceives their power over others. Studies have shown that priming power affects:

  • OptimismFast, N. J., Gruenfeld, D. H., Sivanathan, N., & Galinsky, A. D. (2009). Illusory control: A generative force behind power's far-reaching effects. Psychological Science, 20(4), 502–508.
  • Self-esteemFast, Gruenfeld, Sivanathan, Galinsky (2009)
  • Action orientation: the practice of taking quick, decisive actions in response to dilemmas or conflicts in order to achieve mental and behavioral change whether the actions had prosocial or antisocial consequencesGalinsky, A. D., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Magee, J. C. (2003). From power to action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(3), 453–466.
  • The sense that the power holder has control over outcomes that are beyond their reachFast, Gruenfeld, Sivanathan, Galinsky (2009)
  • When priming high power, more abstract processing occurred, even when this negatively affected performanceSmith, P. K., & Trope, Y. (2006). You focus on the forest when you're in charge of the trees: Power priming and abstract information processing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(4), 578–596.
  • A participant primed with a high level of power was likely to act against a distracting stimulus (a fan) in the environment, suggesting the experience of power leads to goal-directed behaviorGalinsky, A. D., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Magee, J. C. (2003). From power to action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(3), 453–466.

A 2020 study concluded that unconscious goal priming improved explicit self-confidence for athletes and that multi-unconscious goal priming improved both explicit self-confidence and implicit self-confidence for athletes. In this study, it was suggested that unconscious goal priming can improve self-confidence in athletes in an immediate, rapid, and economical manner.Lyu, W., & Zhang, L. (2020). Effect of Unconscious Goal Priming on Athletes’ Self-Confidence. In Journal of Science in Sport and Exercise (Vol. 2, Issue 2, pp. 120–131). Springer Science and Business Media LLC. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42978-020-00056-3 

What other concepts are connected?

Here's one I recalled from memory:

I remember that people tend to not only think of similar concepts (what do three words have in common), but they also subconsciously prime actions as well. For example, when people read a list of words relating to old age (hospital, cane, rocking chair etc) even without explicitly mentioning anything having to do with old age, they tended to walk more slowly down the hall outside.

With the benefit of my notes I can add:

All of them insisted that nothing they did after the first experiment could have been affected by the words they encountered. The idea of old age had not come to their conscious awareness. Even so, their actions had changed.Mussweiler, T. (2006). Doing Is for Thinking!. Stereotype Activation by Stereotypic Movements. In Psychological Science (Vol. 17, Issue 1, pp. 17–21). SAGE Publications. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01659.x - reference in Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, page 53

Thus, I recalled some aspects of the priming process this morning: its influence on thinking, learning, and actions. However, there are also many aspects I did not recall.  I found a wealth of them in my notes.

The Cramer (2000) paper I quoted from above directed me to other works that describe how repressed memories, once only the domain of psychoanalytic methods reminiscent of Freud and the early 20th century, could be understood and recovered by using implicit memory traces.

In cognitive psychology, the Deese-Roediger-McDermott (DRM) paradigm is a procedure used to study false memories in humans. The approach relies on the fact that people tend to group similar ideas together. Participants will often identify words that were not on the list when given a list of words and later asked to recall them, thus producing "false memories." Personally, I don't see how this could be a practical test, but I haven't studied it in depth.

According to Daniel Kahneman, other priming effects include:

  • When people are primed with ideas about money, they become more independent.Vohs, K. D., Mead, N. L., & Goode, M. R. (2006). The Psychological Consequences of Money. Science, 314(5802), 1154–1156. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1132491 - however, see Rohrer, D., Pashler, H., & Harris, C. R. (2019). Discrepant data and improbable results: An examination of Vohs, Mead, and Goode (2006). Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 41(4), 263–271. https://doi.org/10.1080/01973533.2019.1624965 which highlights issues with reproducing the first study's results.
  • Bringing people's mortality to their attention increases the appeal of authoritarian ideas.Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., Rosenblatt, A., Veeder, M., Kirkland, S., & Lyon, D. (1990). Evidence for terror management theory II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural worldview. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(2), 308–318. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.58.2.308 
  • People who think about committing a crime are primed to think of ideas pertaining to washing or cleaning. It has been called the "Lady Macbeth" effect.Zhong, C.-B., & Liljenquist, K. (2006). Washing Away Your Sins: Threatened Morality and Physical Cleansing. In Science (Vol. 313, Issue 5792, pp. 1451–1452). American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1130726 

Following exposure to words related to conformity (e.g., adhere, agree, comply), participants seemed more likely to conform to the opinions expressed by confederates who gave a positive assessment of a boring task.Epley, N., & Gilovich, T. (1999). Just Going Along: Nonconscious Priming and Conformity to Social Pressure. In Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 35, Issue 6, pp. 578–589). Elsevier BV. https://doi.org/10.1006/jesp.1999.1390 

According to a 2011 paper, priming may affect value change, that is, an individual's decision to change what's important to them. While automatic priming of a value did not change the values directly, it may result in actively thinking about it. Such contemplation may result in value change. The result is a process that starts out as automatic but moves into awareness, leading to a value change route that requires thinking.Bardi, A., & Goodwin, R. (2011). The Dual Route to Value Change: Individual Processes and Cultural Moderators. In Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology (Vol. 42, Issue 2, pp. 271–287). SAGE Publications. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022022110396916  

How can we prime ourselves in positive ways?

Here's one I learned from the Hidden Brain podcast: Can your environment have an unconscious effect on your health? The answer is yes, says a 2016 study on the relationship between a server's weight (BMI) and how much food diners order:

First, people are not fully aware about their food-related decisions. Second, people do not realize that the environment has an effect on their (non-)conscious decisions. ... We showed that diners can be influenced by their surroundings in general and furthermore by their social interactions in particular. For the first time, a study was able to show that social interactions can influence the eating and ordering behavior in high-involvement settings. This study suggests that it does not take profound interactions between individuals to alter their eating behavior. The results supported by this research agree with previous experimental findings.

Hidden Brain also introduced me to a study measuring the effects of imagining oneself riding an elevator up or down. Can these thoughts affect a person's desire to achieve more? The study (which, incidentally, was also my first encounter with the concept of embodied cognition) found a connection between thinking about upward or downward movement and self-worth. As a result, motivation and performance are also affected.Ostinelli, M., Luna, D., & Ringberg, T. (2014). When up brings you down: The effects of imagined vertical movements on motivation, performance, and consumer behavior. In Journal of Consumer Psychology (Vol. 24, Issue 2, pp. 271–283). Wiley. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcps.2013.12.001  

You can improve your writing skills by understanding priming. Saying someone had a rough day will cause the reader to make associations with sandpaper, while saying they had a bad day won't do this. By using such associations, you can fill in the picture without describing everything in detail, which is more pleasing to the reader and keeps their attention longer.

Note that priming affects us mentally (cognitively as well as ideologically), physically, socially, and emotionally. It impacts our self-concept, our behavior, our beliefs, and our perceptions. It might even affect our values. Knowing how priming works can help us communicate more effectively. It can help us understand and even influence others (although I suggest being cautious about the latter).

Now disregard everything I've told you

Well, not everything. But critical thinking is in order here.

I wrote all of the above with a clear understanding that the science of priming has undergone a crisis in recent years. After I finished combing through my notes, I spent the rest of my research time trying to uncover the answer to the question, Are the results replicable?

Above, I proudly cited references to Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow. However, the studies cited in his chapter on priming rated the lowest in terms of replicability of all the studies he cited, according to Ulrich Schimmack, a professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga in Canada and the author of the R-Index blog. Schimmack refers to the efforts of 17 independent labs to replicate one of the studies cited by Kahneman in that chapter:

Not a single lab produced a significant result and even a combined analysis failed to show any evidence for the effect.

According to Schimmack, all the other studies have similar R-indexes, a measure of replicability. He also quotes from the 2014 book Understanding Priming Effects in Social Psychology, which book makes the following thought-provoking comment about the old-age priming experiment I mentioned above:

In a society in which old age is associated not with slowness but with, say, talkativeness, the outcome variable could be the number of words uttered by the subject at the end of the experiment rather than walking speed.

Schmimmack explains much of the failure to replicate social priming studies as follows:

There is strong scientific evidence to support the claim that subliminal priming researchers did not use the scientific method properly. ... The most plausible explanation is that the original article reported inflated effect sizes.

A 2019 article in Nature concurs, attributing the problem to shaky statistical methods that "fooled scientists into publishing irreproducible results." The article includes quotes from Ap Dijksterhuis, a researcher at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. Dijksterhuis had published a paper demonstrating that students who had been primed with the word "professor" performed better on quizzes. However, he admits in the article that his research “did not pass the test of time”. Still, he added:

I still have no doubts whatsoever that in real life, behaviour priming works, despite the fact that in the old days, we didn’t study it properly relative to current standards.

An article in Quartz likewise acknowledges,

The failed replications don’t prove that the body doesn’t influence cognition at all, and there are still findings within the sphere of embodied cognition that are well-regarded.

The failure to replicate the studies cited by Kahneman surprised me, given his reputation and the openness of his research, but I suppose this is simply a lesson that reinforces Carl Sagan's famous aphorism: 

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

There is enough evidence to suggest that subconscious memory exists and that it affects our conscious thoughts and actions. However, it should not come as a shock that many of the more sensational findings aren't generalizable. 

How to use this information

In view of the headline, I suppose this article is just as disappointing as the study of social priming. Our hopes are raised, but there seem to be more questions than answers. I believe what I've learned above, or at least been reminded of, has opened my eyes a bit to the possibilities.

In spite of the fact that our internal J.A.R.V.I.S., our associative memory, sometimes leads us astray, we should be thankful it works so well most of the time. Just like my heart beats in my chest without any conscious intent on my part, so my associative memory automatically creates links to related information that I can use or discard at will. However, information can sometimes be a handicap to me, as in the case of functional fixedness. 

Cues in my environment can trigger subtle changes in my thinking, leading me to have more or less self-confidence, increase or decrease my desire to fit in, or even prompt me to rethink my values. Cues that contribute to a feeling of power can handicap me by making me think I have more control over my environment than I really do or moving me to take action when deliberation would be more prudent.

Metaphorical associations affect the way I think, feel, and act in subtle ways. In the same way, I can use this knowledge to influence others, for instance, by understanding the power of understatement in written and spoken communication.

I say the best way to "wield the secret" of associative memory is to be aware of its potential effects. People tend to be completely unaware of how their unconscious associations affect them. Even with as little knowledge as you and I currently have, we still know enough to conduct ourselves like the one-eyed man in the land of the blind.