How You Can Prompt Us to Feel or Do Something

This persusion technique probably won’t work on hormonally-hit teenagers (sorry weary parents) yet you could try it on spouses, co-workers or customers. Suppose, for example, you’re tired of the dirty cups in the office coffee nook. Try spraying the air with a lemony scent reminiscent of a cleaning agent. When those sloppy colleagues smell it they are more likely to tidy up. That’s what several psychologists have discovered, including Jonathan Haidt, Henk Aarts, Aaron Kay and John A. Bargh.

It’s called priming. We are unaware of it happening to us. It affects your attention, memories, performance and relationships. It is prompting one towards something, for example taking a certain action, such as cleaning up the nook, or holding a certain opinion. As Yale students who’d volunteered to be part of a study were sent, one-by-one, down a hallway to the study they passed a lab assistant in the hallway.

As the assistant’s hands were full, holding a clipboard, textbooks, papers and a cup of either hot or iced coffee, he asked each student for a hand with the cup. A few minutes later the students read about a fictional person then ranked that individual on a range from warm, thoughtful and social to cold, selfish and less social. You guessed it. Those who’d held the cup of hot coffee were more likely to rank that individual more positively than the students who’d held the iced java. They were “primed” to do so. Bargh and Robert Wyer relate this effect to “the automaticity of everyday life.” As you’ve anticipated, priming can prompt “good” and “bad” behavior.

In other priming experiences those who briefly saw words like “support” or “dependable” acted more cooperatively. Those who saw a briefcase during the experiment became more competitive. From what we touch, smell or see, it takes only small sensory cues, it seems to influence our behavior.

Priming is most effective when it is done in the same sensory mode as the original experience. For example, along the back of the yard of my grandmother’s modest home ran an abandoned railway track. The wood that supported the iron tracks was soaked with creosote. Even today, whenever I get even a faint whift of that acrid smell I smile with the memory of many happy times sitting in the kitchen, talking with Grandma.

How are you being primed to feel, act or buy? I have a Las Vegas hotel client that increased per-guest spending and positive views of the hotel’s quality, staff service – even staff attractiveness – all evoked by one sensory change. From check-in to gaming areas and hallways, the hotelier wafts the scent of sunscreen lotion. (“Hey honey, we’re on vacation, the world looks good and we’re going to play.”)

• What’s on your walls at home to prime your family to feel secure, happy and, well, at home? Or behind you as you sit at your office? What do others repeatedly touch, smell or hear when around you? Do you like to effect those sensory cues evoke?

• What do you share, give away or show others with whom you want to feel closer?

• How can you cultivate closeness and positive memories by special, repeated rituals, foods or ceremonies?

• Just before friends or clients meet with you, what are they likely to smell, see, hear or touch and how will those experiences affect how they feel about you and what you talk about? Relatedly, see how to storyboard the sequence of sensory moments others have at your conference or people-serving place.

5 Responses to “How You Can Prompt Us to Feel or Do Something”

  1. Stephanie West Allen Says:

    As you probably know, the more self-aware you are, the less priming can affect you or the more quickly the influence dissipates. My goal is self-awareness, not using priming on myself or others. But this is just my choice. I can see why others would not make the same choice.

    Always enjoy your blog, Kare!

  2. Kare Anderson Says:

    Yes, I am aware of that, thanks. Cialdini thinks the decrease in influence is slight. Since this post, Stephanie, I interviewed the author of Multiplicity who has a complementary take on this effect. That podcast will be published next month. I enjoy your blog writing as well!

  3. Stephanie West Allen Says:

    A while back, I discussed this with Jeff Schwartz, the neuroscientist with whom I work. I hypothesized that self-awareness works against priming and he agrees. I will discuss it with him again and blog about the conversation. If only I knew how to podcast . . .

  4. Jody Urquhart Says:

    Kari. Great Post! I came here after reading about it on MeetingsNet.
    Great points and so interesting about the hot cup, sunscreen ( i have noticed this in some resorts) and edgy buildings.
    I know this is from 2008 so i will visit more often
    Glad things are going great Kari and Have a fabulous 2012

  5. kare anderson Says:

    What is 2008 referring to Jody? Thanks Kare

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