What is Priming?

Volkswagon GolfWhen you’re exploring the idea of buying a new car, let say for example, a Volkswagon Golf, we will consider what happens in your mind.

There may be many reasons for considering buying a Golf; it’s affordable, has good gas mileage, is sporty enough to be fun, and gosh darn, it is cute! Then you might visit a few dealerships and even find a few potential cars that you might consider purchasing. Then you mull over the decision, weigh in on other cars and try to establish if it is a cost you want to take on.

Then, something strange starts happening over the next couple of weeks. You think you have stumbled upon a unique, fun little car. Sure we’d seen a few around here and there but nothing crazy. Then, all of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, you start seeing this car everywhere!

Every time you go out you count 3, 5, 10 different people driving a Golf. The car is everywhere. It seems like everyone owns a golf!

Obviously the rest of society isn’t changing their cars at the same time as you. So what’s going on here?

Often referred to as The Baader-Meinhof Phenomena, this tendency to see things consistently only shortly after first recognizing them is the result of a cognitive bias that leads to a distorted perception of reality (there aren’t actually more VW Golfs on the road). Part of what is fueling this is Priming.


This story is nothing unique and I know that you’ve experienced it too. Something that you think is novel, new or obscure suddenly seems very common once you hear about it. What’s happening here is a simple psychological effect that healthy individuals can’t avoid, called priming.

When we are exposed to something enough it sort of rises to the surface of our consciousness. The idea is that by exposing the mind to a stimuli or memory, the pathways to that memory, stimuli, or construct are reinforced.

An analogy: If the park is your memory, then the path from your house to that park is the pathway. The number of people that use that pathway and the frequency with which it’s used determines how defined the path is. Our memories work in much the same way. Since you kept looking up Golfs online, looking at them in person, thinking about them in the car (should I get a Golf?), then, when you’re around them, you’re more likely to see them. Not because there are more of them (obviously), but merely because you have conditioned your mind to be more aware of them.

This is why things like cramming for tests does not work. Although it seems like you can ‘prime yourself’ for a test, the truth is that there simply isn’t enough time dedicated to a single topic to do well on an entire test. You might be able to cram one formula in your head the night before, but not an entire chapter. This is also why we are very prone to hearing our name if someone says it in a group of large people (known as the cocktail party effect).

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