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Priming Psychology: How to Get People to Do What You Want

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Do you prime people to be their best selves? Priming psychology is one of the most underutilized success techniques.

What is priming psychology?

Priming is using a stimulus like a word, image or action to change someone’s behavior. For example, research has found that we can prime someone to walk more slowly by having them read words like cautious or leisurely. Or we can prime someone to be less rude by having them read words like patient, polite and respectful.

Priming is when we expose someone to something that influences their behavior later on — without that individual being aware that the first thing guided their behavior.

How do you use priming?

Priming can be used with a variety of stimuli. Lots more examples in psychology here. Here are the most common priming sources:

  • Words: Having someone read words, unscramble words or work with words can prime them to act on the meaning of that word. For example, you reading the word ‘thorough’ should make you read this article more thoroughly = )
  • Images: Having someone look at an image, draw an image or work with an image can prime them for what the image represents. For example, can you read the word in this image? I just primed you to be more likely to ‘subscribe’ to our amazing, incredible, delightful newsletter!
Vanessa and her friends hold up pages that spell out "Subscribe"
  • Actions, Items, Videos: You can also prime with real life objects, actions or videos. If I serve candy in my office it will prime you differently than if I serve roast beef. 

Priming Examples

There are some great priming examples in psychology. Let’s go through some great priming science.

Priming People to Be Less Rude

In 1996, researcher John Bargh did an experiment to see if he could influence behavior with a simple activity. The researchers had three groups of participants.

  1. The first group had the “Rude Condition” and had to unscramble a list of rude words like bold, aggressive, disturb.
  2. The second group, called “Polite Condition” had a series of polite words like patient, respect and respectful.
  3. The last group, the “Neutral Condition”, had words that were neither polite nor rude.

When a participant was done unscrambling words, they were instructed to walk down the hallway and tell the researcher they were finished. 

Unbeknownst to them, the researcher would be in a long fake discussion with another researcher when the participant arrived. The experiment was to test how long it would take for each group to interrupt the researcher to tell him that they were done.

Within 10 minutes, 60% of the rude group had interrupted, while only 40% of the neutral group and 20% of the polite group had interceded.

This is a very simple experiment, with a very powerful lesson. It teaches us that people can be subconsciously primed to act differently.

Priming People in Emails

You can prime people for the reaction you want with priming emails. This is a huge advantage (and potential pitfall) of technology people often forget. Emails allow us to prime people before they take action. I have begun to use this with my interns, employees and colleagues before meetings, phone calls or interviews. 

How do you want someone to feel, act or behave? Prime them for it.

Below are two emails. Every week I have a weekly check-in call with the team and we are often pressed for time and have a ton of agenda–getting off topic constantly happens!

The first is an email I used to send out before our weekly check-in call. The second is the email I send out now before my calls with priming language.

Bad Priming Email:

Hi All,

As usual we have the weekly call tomorrow, Tuesday. Again, we are a little stressed for time and might have some trouble getting through the tasks on the agenda. I need everyone to please tighten up their points and avoid asking slow or lengthy questions on the call—you can send them out in an email later if you need.  I attached the agenda.


Good Priming Email:

Hi Team,

Tomorrow is our weekly goals call. I’m hoping we can be really efficient because we do have a lot to discuss. If everyone can take a look at their points and prepare a well-organized overview that would be great, because then we will have plenty of time for succinct questions, if people have them. Remember you can also easily send them in an email after the call. I attached our agenda.

Best, V

The emails both say the same thing, but when I started to change the emails for more positive priming I found that people were more efficient and excited for the call. It also started a chain of nice follow-up emails. My responses to the first email usually followed my same pattern of using negative, stressful words and phrases. Amazingly, the second email produces kind, efficient language.

Use Priming to Set People Up for Success

Priming can be used maliciously or to be manipulative. It is very important that we use it to set people up for success. Here’s how to use priming for good:

  • Use positive priming words like efficient, together, helpful, goal, well-organized and team.
  • Avoid negative priming words like stress, pressure, tighten, rush, and tasks.

This is not tricky or subversive, it is just expressing what you want to happen with the correct words.

In fact, I am now teaching this in my training with my employees and am very transparent about using it. Many of them very much appreciate this effort and use it themselves! I also find their priming emails easier to respond to, less stressful and more organized. Another benefit is that even writing this way yourself, helps you feel less stressed because you are not using those words.

I encourage you to try priming not just in emails, but also in:

  1. Texts
  2. Evites
  3. Social network updates
  4. Powerpoints
  5. Handouts
  6. Agendas

You can also do this when you journal or brainstorm. I find if you journal or self-reflect using words of emotions and actions you want to create, you have a much more successful follow-up.

Priming is an interesting way of approaching your own attitude and other’s. I highly recommend practicing with friends and family members and being transparent about your wanting to produce positive effects in the people you are interacting with.

Can Priming Get People to Tell the Truth?

You can also use priming if you need someone to confess. In this article, I give you some tips on how to get someone to divulge information.

Remember, always use priming psychology for good and not evil!

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