Conscious and Unconscious Priming Effects

“Another major advance in our understanding of memory was the discovery that priming is not restricted to concepts and words,” writes Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, “You cannot know this from conscious experience, of course, but you must accept the alien idea that your actions and your emotions can be primed by events of which you are not even aware.”

 

Yesterday I wrote about linguistic priming. How words can trigger thoughts in our mind, and set us up to think certain thoughts. I wrote about how ideas spread, like in the movie Inception from one thought or idea to another based on similarities and categories of things. I wrote about how important implicit associations can be, and how we have used them to measure racial bias and the harm that these biases could have in society. Today’s post continues on that trend, exploring the areas in our lives where priming may be taking place without our knowledge.

 

In his book, before the quote I shared at the start of this post, Kahneman describes our thoughts as behaving like ripples on a pond. A train of thought can be primed in one direction, and ripples from that priming can spread out across our mind. So when I used Inception earlier, I may have primed our minds to think about trains, since they feature so prominently in the movie, and if that is the case, it is no surprise that I used train of thought just a few sentences later. From this point forward, there are likely other metaphors and examples that I might use that are potentially primed by the movie Inception or by associations with trains. It is clear that I’m following priming effects if I directly reference my thinking staying on track or going off the rails, but it might be less obvious and clear how my thinking might relate to trains in the sentences to come, but as Kahneman’s quote suggested, my mind might be unconsciously primed for certain directions all from the casual mention of Inception from earlier.

 

Across my writing I have always been fascinated by the idea that we are not in as much control over our minds as we believe. Thoughts think themselves, we don’t necessarily think our own thoughts. Our minds can be influenced by time, by caffeine levels, by whether someone smiled at us on our commute to work, or whether our sock is rubbing on our foot in a strange way. We don’t have to think of anything for it to directly register with our brain and influence where our mind goes. What thoughts pop into our head, and what ripples of ideas are primed across our mind are beyond our control and influenced by things we sometimes barely notice. Priming, according to Kahneman, can be direct, deliberate, and conscious, or it can be unconscious and oblique. The mind and how we think is more random and unpredictable than it feels, and sometimes more random than we would like to believe. This should change how we think of ourselves, how we think of others, and what information and knowledge we privilege and encourage. It should make us less certain that we are always behaving as we should, and less certain that we are as smart and savvy in all situations as we like to believe we are.

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