ON THE BIAS: Priming Effect

ON THE BIAS: Priming Effect

Welcome to the third edition of the ON THE BIAS series!

On the Bias is a series that explores our cognitive biases and how they impact our behavior change efforts.

We have covered nine biases before this one. All posts can be viewed here, and last year’s posts are also available to listen to on Spotify.

A story: Be afraid, be VERY afraid.

When I was a young teenager, there were several consecutive years when I would go to Six Flags Great Adventure Park in New Jersey with my dad for Father’s Day.

The gift of companionship was all he wanted since no one else in the family would go on roller coasters with him. (The irony is that we’re the two most anxious people in the family.)

One year, Six Flags debuted its first-ever inverted roller coaster, “Batman: The Ride,” in which the chairs hung from above so your feet dangled without anything holding them in place.

As we stood in the long line for this new ride, all I could hear was the wooshing sound of fast-moving machinery and scores of people seemingly screaming for their lives. Every five minutes, as the line inched forward, my dad would say, “You don’t have to do this. We can get out of the line at any time.”

While I felt a little nervous at the time, his check-ins were making matters worse. However, my teenage stubbornness meant I was getting on that ride no matter what.

We strapped ourselves into our seats, and after two minutes of twists, turns, flips, and dips, we pulled to a smooth stop. My dad immediately looked at me to see if I was OK, and I had a huge smile on my face and yelled, “That was AWESOME!!!!!”

I loved the ride. Dad, on the other hand, looked a bit queasy.

What’s happening here?

From a psychological perspective, my dad was clearly projecting his own fears and anxieties onto his child. But I’ll save that part for another blog series titled “I Blame My Parents.”

While I stood in line for the roller coaster, the sights (people dangling and flipping), sounds (loud whooshes of the roller coaster), and interactions (my dad’s repeated offers to leave the line) primed me to be scared of the impending experience. Had I not felt determined to try the ride, the stimuli would have prompted me to ditch it for something more familiar.

ON THE BIAS: The Priming Effect happens “when we are exposed to a stimulus like sight, smell, sound or touch, [and] we form an association. When we later hear or see the same stimulus, it triggers similar associations and we make what seem like natural links.”

» The Behaviours Agency

Imagine if the experience was flipped around: I am standing in line for the ride, and upbeat music is playing that overpowers the whooshing sounds. There are signs throughout the line that says, “10 minutes until you’re also screaming with glee” (reframing those sounds), and my dad’s check-ins sound more optimistic, like, ” This is going to be so much fun.”

In this alternate universe, I would have been primed to be excited for the ride, which may have even enhanced my joy during and after the experience.

Bringing the bias home: Since priming tends to occur on a subconscious level, we typically notice it in hindsight. Think of a time when one stimulus like a smell you adore, a friendly smile, or a feel-good email or text shifted your decision or disposition in a subsequent task.

For example:

  • A familiar smell makes you feel nostalgic, so you choose comfort food for your next meal.
  • A friendly gesture by a stranger before work leads to warmer email responses.
  • Calming music and lavender smells in the spa waiting room help you relax before a massage

How this bias can help or hurt our behavior change programs

Studies on this bias are fascinating to read about.

This study showed that low-volume or no music in a food establishment leads to healthier food choices, with high-volume music leading to unhealthier choices.

Another study in this article correlated exposure to aggressive words with increased frustration compared to participants exposed to words of patience or positivity.

The Decision Lab distills the Priming Effect to its core with this sentence: “Our actions and behavior can be altered by the information we are exposed to.”

Let’s explore how this bias can help or hurt our behavior change efforts.


If we are not mindful of the cues we use during outreach events and communication materials, we risk priming the audience to have feelings that are counterproductive to what we hope to achieve.

I often think about this when watching nature-based documentaries. Some videos start with a montage of images about all the terrible things happening to the planet, which primes the viewer to feel sad, scared, overwhelmed, and hopeless. Even when this montage is followed by solutions, the viewer may have a hard time overcoming the initial priming, resulting in lingering skepticism. Similarly, starting such videos with slow, calming music might prime the viewer to be relaxed, or it could signal that it’s nap time.

This bias can also hurt our efforts when media coverage or misinformation campaigns use negative priming through click-bait headlines, fear-based messages, and data distortions that degrade trust, the truth, optimism, and action.

Addressing this issue is more challenging, as it feels like a race to the starting line of who can reach audiences first and most consistently.

The next section shares a study about positive priming that dispelled the persistent belief that sharks intentionally “attack” people, which can provide insight into combatting dis-/misinformation.


Now that we understand priming, we can be strategic about the words and stimuli we use when engaging with our audiences.

Let’s start with motivational language! A study shared in The Decision Lab’s article showed that “when a CEO primed his team with emails that contained achievement-related words (ex: prevail, accomplish, master), effectiveness rose by 15%, and efficiency rose by 35% over the workweek.”

While we may not be aiming for efficiency and productivity metrics per se, we could utilize a similar approach to empower audiences to take action for the planet.

We could also use priming to “set the mood” for workshops, training, and events we’re hosting. If you anticipate that an upcoming stakeholder meeting will be a bit tense or challenging, you could play calming, spa-like music when attendees arrive and kick off the meeting with activities that focus on commonalities and team-building. Or you can start with energizing music and activities to prime the group for high participation (especially for post-lunch events!)

A neat example of using priming for good comes from this research study that aimed to reduce people’s fear of sharks to encourage more public advocacy for protecting sharks. The study used priming messages on the “absence of intentionality” in shark bites before aquarium visitors entered the shark exhibit, which resulted in a greater understanding of shark behavior, increased pride in shark species, and a greater likelihood of supporting shark conservation efforts, even after local shark encounters had been reported.

If I received some of these priming messages before watching Jaws as a child, I may have been a more confident snorkeler today!


The Priming Effect is contextual and (likely) temporary. It requires your program to control the environment and stimuli around the audience—like what music is playing—and it may not work in all settings. Additionally, the positive association between the priming and the action may not carry over to future situations.

We must use this bias with care and strong ethical standards. There is a line between persuasion and manipulation we should be mindful not to cross. We can apply this bias ethically by ensuring that audiences don’t lose their autonomy or agency in decision-making, not reinforcing negative stereotypes of others, and being considerate of our audiences’ mental well-being. The ethical standards written at the end of this post can serve as a helpful checklist.


→ Check out the full set of “On The Bias” posts here.



Feeling primed to peruse more articles on the priming effect? Here you go: