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The Effects Of Priming Beyond ABA Therapy

Priming is a useful antecedent strategy in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). We use it to prepare our clients for their day using a visual schedule, give them reminders about expected behaviors, or even to improve learning in the natural environment by playing with and labeling targets before running a tacting program. Psychology and neuroscience researchers also study this phenomenon, but with much greater implications. Priming, in either context, refers to “a unconscious form of human memory concerned with perceptual identification of words and objects” (Psychology Today). What this means in our everyday life is that the way we unconsciously perceive our environment has a greater control over our choices then we are willing to accept.

The Research

The priming effect was largely discovered by David E. Meyer and Roger W. Schvaneveldt in 1971 with their research on word pair recognition (Meyer & Schvaneveldt, 1971). They analyzed the response times from comparing if two strings of texts were words (“yes” or “no”) and if the strings were either both words or both non-words (“same”) or one word and one non-word (“different”). They found that “yes” and “same” responses were faster for commonly associated word pairs (like dog and horse) than for unassociated words (like chair and grape).

Over 45 years of research later, we have learned how far this effect spreads. In 2003, Kay et al.conducted a series of studies looking at the influence of physical objects on behavioral choice. In one study, two groups of participants drew lines to connect descriptions to pictures. Group 1 was presented with neutral photos while group 2 was presented with pictures of business items (briefcase, dress shoes, pens, etc.). After the matching task, participants were set up to play the ‘Ultimatum Game’ with another participant (who was actually a part of the experiment). They were given $10 and it was their decision how much to offer the other “participant”, however if the other person declined their offer, neither person would receive money. Out of the participants in the control group (neutral photos), 91% proposed an even split of the money. However, in the group that completed the matching task with business related items, only 33% proposed an even split while the remainder gave themselves more money than the other participant.

An additional study in the same paper used a different group of participants to complete the Ultimatum Game only without the prior matching tasks. The control group completed the game in a room with a backpack, cardboard box, and they were given a wooden pencil to write with, while the experimental group were in a room with a large meeting table, leather briefcase, and executive style pen. 100% of the participants in the control group decided to split the money evenly, while 50% in the experimental group split the money evenly (again with the remainder keeping more for themselves). In this study, they added a follow-up questionnaire asking what factors contributed to how they choose to split the offer. Not one participant mentioned being influenced by the environment. Instead, they created a reason to explain their behavior by citing their beliefs about fairness or their expectation about what the other person would do.

This is a key feature of priming, you are unaware that your choices are being manipulated through environmental factors, and when asked about it you unconsciously construct an explanation that fits your behaviors. There are many studies showing the varied effects of priming. Manipulation of the environment can make you more likely to clean up if you smell bleach or cleaning chemicals, work out harder if you see a sports drink, and even walk slower if exposed to words associated with old age (McRaney, 2012)!

In ABA Terms

In ABA we are accustomed to top-down influences which rely on higher level cognitive processes to make decisions based on our prior knowledge, which then lead to emotions, and finally, a response in the body. If a friend offers you pizza (stimulus you’ve had prior knowledge of), you might think that they’re being very nice, wonder what is on it and if you want some (emotional response), then you salivate as you think of eating the pizza, stand up, and go in the kitchen to get some (body response). Priming uses bottom up processing that relies first on sensory information (sight, smell, sound, etc.) which trigger a response in the body, this leads to emotions, and then a decision or thought. If your friend hands you a plate of pizza with deep fried roaches on top, you see the roaches and immediately get nauseous, make a face, or drop the plate, followed by emotions like disgust or anger, then you make a cognitive decision telling your friend “that’s gross”, yelling at them and leaving, or realizing that it was a joke and laughing about it.

It is this bottom up process that allows external environmental factors to influence your behavior to such a degree without you even being aware of it. To be effective, you have to start with a stimulus that has personal or cultural significance to you. If you didn’t know what a roach was, or if you are from a culture where insects are a typical part of the diet, the pizza example would not have the same effect. Almost every item we encounter triggers associations in your mind; backboards remind you of school, candy necklaces remind you of your childhood, the smell of pumpkin spice reminds you of Thanksgiving with your family. If you have no learning history with the stimuli it will not change your behavior. Priming works by taking a stimulus that has affected the way you behave in the past, then placing it in your environment to trigger the associations tied with it. Seeing a juicy steak may make you salivate due to your history of eating delicious steaks, but seeing a leather briefcase triggers your associations and history of experiences with leather briefcases and changes your internal behaviors (thoughts and feelings) to correlate with the thoughts and feelings associated with briefcases.

Priming in Real Life

In our field, we manipulate the environment to change our kids behaviors all the time, but businesses and marketing departments have also become experts in this skill. Grocery stores that smell of fresh baked bread have more impulse buying, wine stores that play classical music sell more champagne, and you’re more likely to buy that piece of cake if the display has it turned towards you with the fork positioned towards your dominant hand (Margalit, 2017). The associations these sights, smells, and sounds have with our past experiences are processed more quickly, and using simpler mechanisms, than the system that processes our rational decision making, and it does so unconsciously.

So what can we do about this? Can priming be used to establish good behavior instead of just to empty our bank accounts? Sometimes. Priming only works when you are unaware of it. If I am in a room that smells of cleaning products while I am on autopilot, I will be more likely to clean up after myself. But if I spray some bleach around the room with the intention of motivating myself to clean, it will not work. You can, however, set up your environment to encourage certain behaviors. Later, when you’re no longer thinking about it, you may be influenced by that stimuli. If you don’t want to be blindly influenced by marketers, analyze the decisions and see if you want to buy that overpriced perfume because of the beautiful rich celebrity associated with it or because you truly like it. If you’re not sure, wait 10 minutes, step out of that environment, and then reassess your motivation. Priming is an evolved cognitive process that can’t be turned off, but by understanding how it works, we can try to use it to our advantage.


Priming. Psychology Today. Retrieved May 28, 2017 from

McRaney, Davis. You Are Not So Smart. New York: Penguin Random House, 2012

Margalit, Liraz (January 20, 2017). Sensory Marketing; The Smell of Cinnamon That Made Me Buy. Psychology Today. Retrieved May 15, 2017 from

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