Pt 2: Priming and Choice

10th September 2019

This is part 2 of a series, read part 1 here (you don’t have to but some of the jokes might not make sense).


Priming has a great impact on the choices we make and can make us fall victim to stereotype threat and other biases.

Think about it, if you’re constantly told that you’re bad at maths, or bad at spelling, you’ll eventually start to conform. And if you’re told you won’t like a certain food, you’ll be more likely to actually look for something you don’t like about it than if you were just left alone.

Priming also works when it comes to language and sentence structure. If you read the phrase ‘the yellow banana’ you’ll actually process the word ‘banana’ than if you read ‘the yellow sky’ because your brain has been primed to expect something which is actually yellow rather than something which is meant to be blue.

How priming impacts choice

Imagine you’re in the supermarket, typical Friday night. You fancy treating yourself to a nice bottle of wine. Being as you’re a normal person, you know wine comes in red, white, and pink varieties. So as you stare into the void that is the wine section, you’re trying very hard to make a good choice.

You’re down to two wines, A and B. A has a lovely label, looks old, is from France, and generally just looks a bit fancy. Its also £12 for the bottle but thankfully is on offer down to £8.

Fake wine label.
Wine A, so fancy, so modern looking. Its dark label gives off an air of refinement.

B, on the other hand, looks a bit naff. It’s £6, doesn’t say where it is from, and doesn’t look quite as nice as A does. In the end, you buy A because you think its nicer. You get home and spend the evening espousing the virtues of Wine A, how robust its flavours are, how heavy it is, how the tannins are so superior to other wines.

Saturday rolls around and you’re off to a party. You nip back to the shops and pick up a bottle of Wine B. It’s just for a party and you’ll probably only have a couple of glasses so who cares what it’s like.

You regret your choice. Wine B tastes vinegary, is bland, and generally disappointing. You quickly switch to Gin.

Wine B, looks generic and just says its from Tesco which is worrying since you’re in ASDA.

Bazzinga! A and B are the same wine.

Consider yourself primed

Wine A got you good. Its higher price point made you think it was superior to B (this is called the Framing Effect). Its fancier label made you think it was fancy. And all that priming came through in your review of the wine. That combined with an implicit bias that ‘more expensive = better’ worked against you to spend more money than you needed to for that bottle of wine.

Don’t feel too bad though – even wine experts have been fooled like this. Some ‘experts’ have been fooled into thinking a white wine is actually red because researchers added food colouring to it.

And they’re not the only ones! Payless (a shoe store in the USA), in an attempt to challenge their company’s perception, took over an old Armani store (so people know Armani could afford that store, priming them to think anything else in it must be similarly expensive), and invited a bunch of influencers to a launch party. They named the store “Palessi” and spent the evening asking attendees what they thought of the ‘designer’ shoes.

Never have a pair of $20 heels received such praise.

Everyone who bought the shoes actually got them for free.

They’re ‘classy’, ‘versatile’, ‘European’, and ‘MET Gala’ worthy. Could you imagine any influencer saying that of the original Payless brand?

Every single thing about this store primed the influencers into assuming that the shoes were high quality. From the location to the decoration of the store and the number of products on display.

By having a limited number of products on display, the influencers will have felt a little bit of loss aversion. They don’t want to miss out on being one of the first to get Palessi shoes so are being subtly encouraged to buy. And once one person buys, they’re encouraged to jump on that bandwagon (ingroup bias).

Read more in Pt3: Overload and Willpower