Spooked By Spock: Demystifying The Science Of Behaviour
Humans are not Spock. Much as traditional economists would like to have otherwise, the reality is humans are not rational – they are emotional and have biases, leading to imperfect decision making. Further, they are not only a product of genes but also the context and environment. In this series we will explore various concepts that are of relevance to marketeers and insight specialists. A closer look at ‘priming’ : In this post, we will explore the concept of priming, and why marketeers need to take be cognizant of it.
A quick search on Wikipedia for priming throws up the following definition for ‘priming’: “Priming is a technique whereby exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention”
Thus, priming as a concept has three facets:
- It involves exposure to a stimulus
- It taps onto existing implicit knowledge structures i.e. trait concepts and stereotypes
- It impacts future outcomes.
Hence ‘priming’ can be used (and has been used) by marketers to design behavioral outcomes that they would like to see amongst a group of target customers. This makes the tool invaluable for marketers.
Let’s consider ‘the open the happy can image’ given here.
If I were now to offer you a coke, would you be inclined to have the drink? Chances are that you would, since the advert taps into the implicit knowledge structures in our mind where red and a smile are strongly associated with happiness and joy. This in turn helps us associate the brand with ‘joyous moments’ triggering a decision to buy the coke can. The brand, in this instance also successfully uses innovative packaging to further embed the concept of happiness by reiterating the ‘smile’ within the consumer’s tactile sensory function when he or she lifts the can tab to open it.
Now let us consider the two images given here.
If I were now to offer you a coke, would you be inclined to have a coke? Chances are you wouldn’t.
The reason being that the images tap into our implicit knowledge structures of bondage and the needle of an addict to ‘prime’ us to reach the conclusion that coca cola is bad for health. The images thus reaffirm our knowledge of the ‘darker side’ of the brand and serve to further strengthen the negative beliefs being touted in popular media. Thus, priming is that when exposed to a stimulus covertly influences the behavior of a consumer.
For market researchers on the other hand, who are committed to collecting unbiased data from their consumers; priming is a critical concept that must be guarded against to ensure quality responses. A recent pilot study done by a US university, amongst 18-34-year-old females revealed that the personality attributes associated with successful women can be ‘influenced’ based on the ‘role models’ shown to the test respondents girls prior to the ‘attribute association’ question. The study found that the groups that were shown role models like Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton gave an entirely different set of attributes versus those who were shown images of Rihanna or Mother Teresa. Thus, most quality market research agencies have elaborate protocols to minimize priming and ensuring quality responses.
To conclude the idea of subconscious behavioural priming was first introduced by Vance Packard in his book The Hidden Persuaders in 1957. Now, more than 60 years later it remains an important anchor and consideration for marketeers and market researchers alike.
Thus, whether you are the part of a brand team, or the consumer- understanding and leveraging (or indeed guarding against) priming to drive behaviour outcomes that you seek is key.
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