How Psychological Priming Affects Thinking

What is Psychological Priming and How It Affects Our Thinking

Psychological priming explains how our environments influence our thinking. Smart priming can enhance all sorts of thinking from simple creativity to high-level strategic thinking. Conversely, unfavorable priming can noticeably damage our thinking. Priming helps to understand, for example, why sometimes it may be a very bad idea to make decisions when you’re in a company of certain people. For instance, critical and careful decisions might be derailed merely because of people or surroundings that would prime you with irresponsibility and thoughtlessness.

How Priming Works

Everything in our environment—other people, physical surroundings, sounds, scents, temperature, and even mundane objects—primes us with certain associations; when such associations become more accessible in our minds, they influence our thoughts and behavior, but we’re not consciously aware that they do so. We don’t realize that we’re primed because priming relies on our implicit memory. In contrast to explicit memory, we are not consciously aware of accessing our implicit memory. Yet, just because we are unaware of it, it doesn’t mean that priming effects are weak. On the contrary, priming can noticeably influence our thoughts and behavior. Priming doesn’t last forever—usually only while we’re exposed to the surroundings and various objects in it, and several minutes or a quarter of an hour after it.

How Thinking of Professors Makes You Smarter

One study by two Dutch researchers, Ap Dijksterhuis and Ad van Knippenberg, tested if priming people with certain stereotypes would change their behavior.[1] They found that priming people with a simple stereotype of professors made people smarter, as measured on a scale of general knowledge.

More interestingly, what inspired these researchers to conduct the study was a somewhat unusual event. Several Dutch psychology professors went to a soccer match. As you might imagine, a typical psychology professor is usually composed. However, being surrounded by soccer roughnecks, one psychologist saw an empty beer can and suddenly kicked it as far away as he could. This puzzling incident led these researchers to study if priming people with a stereotype of a soccer hooligan would affect behavior. And it did—it made people dumber. The researchers also found that priming lasted for at least 15 minutes.

Priming without Physical Presence

We can be primed with stereotypes even without other people’s physical presence. A much-cited 1996 study by John Bargh, Mark Chen, and Lara Burrows found that even words related to old age can activate the stereotype of elderly people.[2] In one of the experiments, the New York University undergraduates worked on a scrambled-sentence task. For some participants, the task contained words associated with the stereotype of elderly people, such as worried, Florida, old, lonely, gray, sentimental, bingo, retired, wrinkle, rigid, traditional bitter, obedient, conservative, and similar. Once participants completed the task, the experimenters would let them go. But here is where the real experiment began: the researchers wanted to see if priming undergraduates with the elderly people stereotype would make them walk slower. Using a hidden stopwatch, the experimenter would record how long it took a participant to walk down the corridor leading to an elevator. And the results were as the researchers expected: the activated stereotype of elderly people led to slower walking speed (8.28 seconds vs. 7.30 seconds in the neutral priming condition).


Priming can have significant practical benefits if we use it to reshape our environments. The basic takeaway is to consider what kind of thinking you want to enhance and then what environment would most effectively prime you with such associations. For instance, if you want to enhance creative thinking, consider what physical surroundings, people, objects and images, and other features of environment would most effectively carry associations of inventive thinking and how can you create such environment.


[1] Ap Dijksterhuis and Ad van Knippenberg, The Relation Between Perception and Behavior, or How to Win a Game of Trivial Pursuit, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 865-877 (1998).

[2] John A. Bargh, Mark Chen, and Lara Burrows, The Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Concept and Stereotype Activation on Action, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 230-244 (1996).

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