October 15th, 2010

I Know You Are, But What Am I?

By Kyle Morich

Priming occurs when exposure to some stimulus affects the way you respond to another stimulus.  A classic study of priming by John Bargh (1) examined how exposing an individual to traits and stereotypes from another group affected that individual’s behavior.  Bargh took 30 NYU psych students and had them complete a scrambled sentence test.  Unbeknownst to half of the students, their tests contained words associated with elderly stereotypes (e.g., Florida, old, grey, wise, bingo, retired, etc.).  None of the students had any idea they had been primed with the sentence tests.  What Bargh did next was brilliant, and provided some of the first evidence that what our brains perceive has a tangible impact on our subsequent behavior.  After each student completed his or her test, he timed how long it took for the student to walk down the hall to the elevator.  Bargh discovered that those students primed with the elderly stereotype walked slower to the elevator.

But the curiosities of priming on social behavior don’t stop here.  Bargh’s experiment showed that an individual tends to assimilate the behavior traits of a different group when exposed to stereotypes of that group.  We actually see the opposite effect when an individual is exposed to the traits of another individual.  In a recreation of the Bargh experiment by Dijksterhuis (2), individuals primed with a specific example of an elderly individual (in this case, the Dutch Queen Mother) walked faster than the control group.  This behavioral contrast occurs because our brains implicitly compare its traits with that of the primed example.  We tend to naturally contrast ourselves against individuals we see as different than us.

The researchers took this finding one step further to see if subjects who identify themselves as part of a group performed contrasting behavior when primed with qualities of an “opposite” group (3).  The researchers took a group of Psychology majors and had them take questionnaires that reinforced their membership with their “group” (e.g., “Most of my courses are in the Psychology Dept.”).  They then told that they would be helping with a “creativity test,” where the students had 7 minutes to color a picture.  They were also told that the coloring exercise would need to be performed twice for accuracy, so another “unrelated” piece of research from another experiment would occur during the two tests to give them a break (college students will believe anything for course credit).  The buffer experiment was another scrambled sentence test.  One group of students was told the sentences were composed by fellow Psych majors, while the other was told that the sentences came from Economics majors.  Each sentence was designed to prime the idea of neatness (“Margot sorts her old papers”).  Once completed, the students took the second coloring test.

What the researchers found is that behavioral contrast can occur at the group level.  The psych students who received the sentence test “designed by Economics majors” were primed to perceive Economics majors as neat.  As a result, their second coloring tests were significantly messier than the students who got a sentence test built by a Psych major (measured by how much coloring occurs outside the lines).

What are the marketing implications of these studies?  For one, advertisers need to be careful with how they use imagery to communicate to an audience.  Consider makeup commercials.  Would a woman watching television have a different reaction to a Mabeline commercial featuring multiple “anonymous” pretty people rather than a specific celebrity example of beauty?  Perhaps the “anonymous” approach would create more feelings of beauty while the comparison to the celebrity would create the opposite effect (“I’m so ugly compared to her”).  As far as the group-level behavioral contrasting goes, my first thought goes to political campaigns.  Could Democrats unwittingly create contrasting behavior by priming conservative audiences with the “traits” of Republicans?

Advertising and other marketing methods can have powerful priming effects, using a multitude of sensory stimuli to convey a brand’s message.  The lesson from these priming studies is that advertisers need to know if they are communicating to an individual or to a group and discern how the spokespeople, actors, groups, and concepts in their ads are unconsciously priming behavior.  I would love to see some specific studies of these priming effects in the consumer advertising space.

(1) Bargh, J., Chen, M., Burrows, L. (1996).  Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation in Action.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 2, 230 – 244

(2) Dijksterhuis, A., Spears, R., Postmes, T., Stapel, D.A., Koomen, W., Van Knippenberg, A., et al. (1998). Seeing one thing and doing another: Contrast effects in automatic behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75, 862 – 871

(3) Spears, R., Gordijn, E., Dijksterhuis, A., Stapel, D.A. (2004).  Reaction in Action: Intergroup Contrast in Automatic Behavior.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 5, 605 – 616

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