“Begin with the end in mind,” says the old maxim. But science is now proving that how we decide to get things started can have a greater influence than everyone ever dreamed.
As part of our ongoing series on cognitive bias, we’re covering a pair of phenomena which are well supported by science: the priming effect and the framing effect. Pull up your chair and be ready to read carefully. These two are a big deal.
A Simple Experiment
Think about the color red. Whatever shade comes to mind, put it in your head for just one moment. Imagine it all around you.
Now, think of a fruit.
You probably pictured an apple. That’s because of a concept called psychological priming. In the well-known system of stimulus/response, priming is when one stimulus influences the response to another stimulus.
How does this work in the real world? Researchers Lawrence Williams and John Bargh published a study titled Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth. Here’s what researchers did: they asked participants to give their perceptions on another person after reading a short biographical sketch about them.
That’s it. Except, right before the study began, an actor engaged the subjects in the elevator. His hands were full, so he asked them to hold his coffee for a moment.
If it was hot coffee, the participants tended to like the people in the sketches. If it was iced coffee, they tended to dislike them. The temperature of the coffee was the only experimental variable.
Priming can influence any aspect of our behavior, and often we don’t know it.
Priming in Action
How can you use this effect in your working life? Here are some examples:
- Set your password to be a personal goal, so you have to type what you want every day.
- Tell people they are doing well in the middle of a series of tasks, even if you’re not sure about their performance. The encouragement will cause their actual quality of work to increase.
- If a room has a clean, fresh smell, people are more likely to be generous.
The best way to use priming is to start in the best possible place. Offer support, give people resources, show them you care. Set out on the right foot and you’ve got a fighting chance for amazing results.
But what about the process?
Presenting Options Through Framing
When we make decisions, we’re often looking at multiple choices. Would you like the stripes or the polka dots? Do you want soup or salad? In many situations, the options seem to be equally presented.
Writing for Psychology Today, Noam Shpancer explains the framing effect with several examples:
Considering two packages of ground beef, most people would pick the one labeled, “80% lean” over the one labeled, “20% fat.”
Are you an old car, or are you vintage?
Are you heading into your twilight years, or your golden years?
Look behind; do you see lost innocence, or gained perspective?
Mistakes, or lessons?
Lost luggage or shed baggage?
And…After watching the same car crash, people who are asked, “How fast were the cars going when they contacted?” remembered slower speeds than those who were asked, “How fast was the car going when they crashed?”
Framing is simply describing the available choices in a way that guides people toward a particular response. You’re often “being framed” without realizing it, or doing the same to others. Watch for it!
Now That You Know
The secret with both framing and priming is catching them when they happen and using them for good. Establish your workplace culture such that any bias you have is explicit and discussed, rather than hidden away without being recognized. That way, people will give you honest answers. And, you’ll get the most from your team no matter what situation presents itself.