I think a lot about priming (for example, see the EID articles here and here). The reason for my fascination is both academic and practical. Academic because priming teaches us a lot about the way the brain works and explains a lot of human behavior that would otherwise be very confusing. Practical because priming has such a strong, unconscious, and potentially insidious effect on behavior. So we need to wield this power carefully and only for the forces of good.
A recent You Are Not So Smart podcast is a good example. David McRaney (one of my favorite thought leaders in this domain) interviews Adam Alter, who is a leading expert on priming. They cover a wide variety of his research in a very engaging interview. David also throws in a few great examples from other researchers both before and after his interview. I recommend listening to the whole podcast. It is an hour you won’t regret.
In this article, I want to highlight just a few of the findings in the podcast. One of my favorites is the title of Alter’s (NYTimes bestselling) book “Drunk Tank Pink”. It started out when a police station painted its jail walls pink, which had a soothing influence on the occupants. Pink primes a more passive emotional state. Apparently, this idea spread when it became popularly known, including one football team that painted the walls of the visitor’s locker room pink. The coach claimed that after the halftime break the other team would be significantly more passive. The league had to pass a rule that all locker rooms in a stadium had to be the same color.
But while this is a funny example, there are also more sinister ones as well. When participants in one study were primed with images of black faces they named items that could be labeled as either tools or weapons (e.g. a pair of scissors) as weapons whereas they named them as tools after being primed with images of white faces (not 100% of course, but statistically significant differences). When participants in another study were primed with videos of a high income neighborhood they rated children who were performing ambiguously on a test as smarter than after being primed with a video of a low income neighborhood, even though the children performed the same on the test. These kinds of biases have been shown in the real world to affect prison sentencing, school grading, hiring decisions, and much more.
So it is really important for all of us to understand how priming can impact our thoughts and decisions and take great pains to either eliminate the effects and make ourselves (or our users) more objective OR to use priming to improve performance by priming schema that elicit improved expectations. I think this last case is one where human factors practitioners can have a really positive impact.