It’s Prime Time: Nudge Before You Message

Bingo. Florida. Wrinkle. Do those words prompt any specific mental images? Stubborn. Forgetful. Wise. We’re getting warmer. You may have quickly determined that these are terms often associated with elderly people. However, you might become skeptical if I told you that exposure to those words would cause you to walk  s l o w e r.

Priming is the idea that a stimulus can influence our behavior without us even realizing it. For example, if you walk by a pizzeria in the morning, its tantalizing aroma wafting in the air, you may later announce that you’re craving pizza without consciously remembering the earlier event that got the idea in your head. Though not in-your-face, directly trying to dictate your decision-making, priming can be viewed as a gentle nudge that encourages a certain behavioral response.

Bitter. Ancient. Traditional. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1996, participants completed a series of scrambled word puzzles where they were asked to rearrange words to form sentences. One group was exposed to words often used to stereotype elderly people, and the other group had neutral words. The group whose words included elderly stereotypes walked more slowly to the elevator than the other group.

Photo by Micheile Henderson  on Unsplash

The researchers conducted another similar priming experiment. The participants were instructed to come into the hallway to find the experimenter following completion of the scrambled word tests. The first group was primed to be rude (including words like aggressively, annoyingly, interrupt), the second group was primed to be polite (including words like considerate, patiently, courteous), and the third group was neutral (including words like normally, prepares, occasionally).

The experimenter made it a point to be engaged in another conversation when the participants sought them out following completion of the puzzles. In the group primed with polite words, less than 20% interrupted the experimenter’s conversation, and the neutral group’s interruption rate was closer to 40%. The group primed with rude words interrupted about 65% of the time. Simple exposure to words impacted subsequent behavior. Without the participants’ conscious awareness, the researchers were able to influence them to act a certain way.

In Robert Cialdini’s book, Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade, he analyzed the critical moment before a message is delivered. Cialdini described this “privileged moment for change” that happens prior to the communication of the important message: “What we present first changes the way people experience what we present to them next,” he wrote. By priming people, we can guide them to be more open-minded and receptive when the true message is conveyed.

Consider priming to be a relative of branding – the message before or around the actual message. What idea does your organization intend to convey, especially to its employees? Brand loyalty begins with onboarding, which starts before the first day on the job.

“By priming people with a simple fact about the high probability of successful change, the researchers completely eliminated the negative bias.” -Nick Tasler, Stop Using the Excuse “Organizational Change Is Hard”

Priming is useful beyond first impressions, too. Though organizations thrive on innovation, change is often presented as a challenge. The Harvard Business Review dissected many ways in which people are negatively biased to believe that change is a nearly impossible feat. However, a series of studies showed that, by presenting change as very doable with some effort, people were more likely to notice small steps in the right direction. Data has even shown that, when companies routinely reiterate employee strengths, employees display these talents more often. Every word matters.

When it comes to your employee handbook, priming can be used to reduce the risk of litigation and improve policy compliance:

  • If your handbook doesn’t look boring, it won’t be boring, and employees will be more likely to actually read it.
  • Pitching your “why” (i.e. your mission, purpose, values, etc.) before you present your policies will prime employees to accept them – because the policies are simply manifestations of the beliefs they’ve already chosen to support. The key here is to make sure your policies don’t contradict your company’s values and culture. For example, if you’ve been praising innovation as an organizational value, then present a three-ring binder of documents dated 2007, there’s a breakdown.
  • You want your employees to like you, so make it easy for them to do so. Photos of employees smiling and appearing as if they like your company will prime other employees to feel the same way.

If you’re putting together any word scrambles at work or are organizing your company’s annual tic-tac-toe tournament, steer clear of hostility and failure and instead incorporate collaboration and success.

Drew Dotson

Drew Dotson

Drew enjoys eating cheese, cuddling with dogs, doing puzzles, and watching sports. She is passionate about raising awareness (and funds) for cystic fibrosis.


  1. […] last pop-psych article of 2019 focuses on priming or, in other words, subtle ways to encourage the response you want. Plant the seed, and watch it […]


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