Priming and “Getting the Answer you Want”

A couple of posts ago (“A Lesson in Ambiguity from the ASHA Leader“) I talked about ambiguous sentences and how they can be affected by the phenomenon of priming. This is where a response to a specific stimulus is affected by the influence of a previous one. So if I ask you “What color is the vase below?” then you are likely to say “white.”

Ambiguous image

But if I’d asked “What color are the two faces looking at each other below?” you would have said “black.” The question (stimulus) affects you response (“white” or “black”).

A specific type of priming is semantic priming, where words are used an initial stimuli to elicit what you might call a “biased answer. Here’s an example:

“I like to boat along a river. The water laps at the edges where the grass and flowers grow. I love to wade in the shallows and squish the mud between my toes. Sometimes I like to sit on the edge with my feet in the water and look for fish.”

Q: What does the word bank mean?

Now, read the following narrative and then answer another question:

“Money is wonderful! It lets me buy thing that I want. I like dollar bills because they fold flat in my wallet. I collect loose change in a jar. Countries have different types of money, such as the Euro in Europe, the pound note in the UK, and the rupee in India. Without money, we’d find it very difficult to trade things between each other.

Q: What does the word bank mean?

There’s a good chance your answer was different in each case based on the narrative you read first. The different text primes you toward a different answer. It won’t always work but you can certainly create tendencies [1].

Politicians, media outlets, and marketing executives know this. Not only do they know it but they regularly put it into practice. A well-constructed priming can get people to agree to all sorts of things without them being always conscious of why? Here’s a classic example from one of the most linguistically educational TV series of all time: Yes Prime Minister:

It’s also a common practice for special interest groups to prime all their discussions by using words and phrases that bias their arguments in a particular, more favorable (for them) direction. One of my pet hates – pun certainly intended – is the use and growth of the phrase pet parent instead of pet owner. Using parent clearly shifts the tone of any conversation in an attempt to make pet ownership seem more important. From the “pet parents” perspective, one doesn’t “own” an animal but treats it like a member of the family. It’s only a small step from there to having strollers for pets, clothes for pets, special diets, hotels, and then “rights” that allow pampered pooches to have, say, a seat on an airplane, a vote for the President, and maybe a driving license.

Or how about the phrase “officer-involved shooting” instead of “police shooting?” In a recent episode of On The Media, an interview took place with Craig Martin, an Associate Professor with Washburn University School of Law about an article he wrote in the Huffington Post entitled Time to Kill the Term “Officer-Involved Shooting.” In it, Martin discusses how the phrase has been used more and more over the past two years by media outlets to describe situations where a police officer has shot someone, but turning the active into the passive somehow degrades the seriousness of the incident [2].

George Orwell’s now classic Politics and the English Language is still a remarkable piece of prose that not only offers sounds advice on good writing technique but looks at priming – without using the term – as it relates to euphemism, where you try to change the tone of a discussion by changing the phraseology of the topic. Consider the following excerpt:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called PACIFICATION. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called TRANSFER OF POPULATION or RECTIFICATION OF FRONTIERS. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called ELIMINATION OF UNRELIABLE ELEMENTS.

This was written in 1946 but if you add in such wonderful newer phrases like collateral damage (dead civilians), enhanced interrogation techniques (torture), downsizing (sacking), or courtesy call (telemarketing call), it could well have been written last week.

When we’re talking about using multiple types of priming that we use to establish a particular point of view, the word framing can be used – as in “framing the argument.” Politicians and marketeers use framing an awful lot because it is their job to persuade you to think – and act – in a specific way. If you’re in a historical mood, Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders is still, after 50 years, a readable discourse on priming and framing as they apply to marketing, although the total absence of anything related to the internet might seem odd to digital natives! A more recent offering is Martin Lindstrom’s Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy.[3]

Priming is also something that can occur in the legal sphere, as noted by Barbara O’Brien and Daphna Oyserman in a 2008 article entitled It’s Not What You Think but Also How You Think About It: The Effect of Situationally Primed Mindsets on Legal Judgments and Decision Making:” [4]

…lawyers understand that calling forth certain concepts and imagery can frame evidence in a way that affects how it is interpreted. Courts forbid a prosecutor from comparing a criminal defendant to Saddam Hussein or Adolf Hitler, for example, because it evokes passions and prejudices. Essentially, a lawyer who uses such a rhetorical device seeks to activate a particular set of knowledge structures and beliefs to influence the sense jurors make of the defendant’s actions, motives, and beliefs, a phenomenon that psychologists call “priming.” (150).

Priming is therefore a feature of our everyday lives, either as the user of priming in order to change the behavior of someone else, or as the recipient of priming from people who want to change how we behave. Recognizing its pervasive existence is at least a first step towards understanding how it affects us all.

Notes
[1] There are many studies in the psychological literature that look at the issue of priming but they tend to be incredibly focused on very tightly controlled experiments – as they should! – and the purpose of this post is really to broaden the concept rather than provide a detailed literature review. Those of you with access to a library that has access to online journals need do little more than type “priming” into the search box to find enough reading material for the year.

[2] I’ve talked as part of my article In Defense of the Grammar Nazi about another example of priming that’s used in the US in relation to discussions about health care provision. For those who are against any notion of a state-sponsored, tax-funded system (like the National Health Service in the UK), it’s usually referred to as socialized medicine, which I suggest was chosen because of its similarity to socialism, and by extension communism and all things wicked and evil. Supporters of a nationally sponsored health care system tend to use the term affordable health care or simply health care in an attempt to minimize the priming effect of socialized -> socialism.

[3] I was a little disturbed that when I checked the Amazon website to provide a link to this book that it was recommended by Dr. Oz, Tyra Banks, and William Shatner. In light of Dr. Oz’s recent decline into junk science, and Tyra Bank’s credentials being mainly that she’s pretty and made fierce a word-of-the-year phenomenon, I was unsure as to whether or not to still recommend the book. But seeing as I liked it, I’m OK with being lumped together with a TV doctor and a supermodel. And I suppose if it’s good enough for Captain Kirk…

[4] O’Brien, Barbara, & Oyserman, Daphna. (2008). It’s Not Just What You Think But Also How You Think About it: The Effect of Situationally Primed Mindsets on Legal Judgments and Decision Making. Marquette Law Review, 92(1), 149-172.

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2 responses to “Priming and “Getting the Answer you Want”

  1. ak Digital Natives is one of my pet hates!
    ta
    mura

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