Priming: A Sneaky or Useful HR Tool?

by Michael Haberman on December 22, 2011 · 0 comments


I am sure some of you are thinking what the heck is “priming”? Are we talking gasoline engines here? The answer to that question is NO. Priming is a well-known tool in the marketing world. I want your opinion on whether or not it is a sneaky or a useful tool in HR.

I am reading a book named YOU are NOT so Smart, written by David McRaney. The second chapter is about Priming, which McRaney says is “When a stimulus in the past affects the way you behave and think or the way you perceive another stimulus later on, it is called priming. Every perception, no matter if you consciously notice, sets off a chain of related ideas in your neural network. Pencils make you think of pens. Blackboards make you think of classrooms. It happens to you all the time, and though you are unaware, it changes the way you behave.” It happens to you unconsciously. McRaney relates to us several studies that show the effect of priming. One such study dealt with two groups who were asked to draw lines between photos and text descriptions. The first group was asked to connect neutral pictures, such as turkeys, whales, kites, etc. to text descriptions. The second group was asked to draw lines from objects connected to the business world, such as pens, briefcases, etc. to their text descriptions. Then both groups were put in a situation where they were given $10 and had an opportunity share it with their partner (who was really a member of the experimental team.) The partner could accept or reject the offer. If the partner rejected the offer both parties would get nothing. So as McRaney says “So everyone in the study was put in the position of making a reasonable offer, knowing that if they did not, they would miss out on some free cash.

The results were interesting. In the group who worked with the neutral photos 51% of them offered to split the $10 in half. In the group that worked with the business items only 33% offered to split the money evenly. They ran the study again using real objects instead of pictures and this time the results were even more dramatic. The neutral group offered to split the money evenly 100% of the time, the business group only offered an even split 50% of the time. As McRaney concludes “Mere exposure to briefcases and fancy pens had altered the behavior of normal, rational people. They became more competitive, greedier, and had no idea why.” Sounds and smells are also effective primers. We all have heard that if you are selling a house you always need to have the smell of fresh cookies baking. Grocery stores know the same thing.

My question then becomes can we use these as effective HR tools. If we know there are primers that make people more likely to agree do we use that knowledge in situations where we know we want to get agreement, such as union negotiation? If we know there are tools that will make people work harder, such as exposure to pictures of sports drinks, do we then make those available as décor? Just the mere exposure to words of politeness will influence people to be more polite. So do you alter your language in situations that may have a tendency to be highly charged? If you have a candidate coming in for a job offer, do you set things up in your office to make things appear more agreeable? Or do you remove yourself from the office and go to a neutral location?

So is this effective HR or is this sneaky HR? You tell me.

The short video below is of Malcolm Gladwell discussing some of this research. He finds it very interesting, so interesting in fact he included it in his book BLINK. (BTW, if you don’t know Mr. Gladwell’s work, then shame on you.)

Malcolm Gladwell on Priming

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