The Priming Effect: How our mind (secretly!) influences politics and the economy

Our civilisation and all of its economic, political, scientific, and technological advances are rooted in the human mind's ability to analyse, learn, comprehend, discover, adapt, and innovate. Therefore, virtually everything in our civilisation is a result of our mind's work. In this article, I will be analysing how the 'priming' effect in psychology helps us understand how our mind defines the world - by influencing peoples' behaviours, actions, and thinking patterns, and subsequently, affecting politics and economic.

The Priming Effect is a psychological phenomenon by which exposure to a specific stimulus influences an individual's reaction to a subsequent stimulus. The Priming Effect demonstrates how our mind can be swayed and manipulated, which in its turn, impacts politics and economics by affecting individual's behaviour, decision-making, and actions.

When exposed to a stimulus that 'primes' specific behaviours, or ideas, individuals' decision-making and actions can subconsciously change to comply with the stimulus; the initial stimulus ends up affecting what people do, think about, and what decisions they make.

For example, studies have shown that if an individual was recently exposed to (primed by) the word 'eat,' they were more likely to complete the missing-letter word 'so_p' as 'soup.' Conversely, being exposed to the word 'wash,' would result in a person completing the fragment as 'soap.' Additionally, if an individual who was primed with 'eat' were to pick one word from the set 'fork, ball, phone, bath,' they would most likely choose 'fork,' because it is associated with the word 'eat.' If primed with 'wash,' they are likely to pick the word 'bath.' In a famous experiment, being exposed to ideas relating to old age (such as the words gray, bald, and wrinkle) has been shown to make primed participants walk more slowly than their non-primed counterparts (walking slowly is associated with old age). Sitting at a wobbly table can prime being and feeling wobbly. A Boston College study showed that being exposed to the Red Bull logo can result in more risk-taking and fearless behaviour because this brand is associated with being energetic and active.

Since our society is based on human behaviour and interactions, being primed by certain stimuli indirectly affects politics and economics. The priming effect may lead to certain laws being imposed and certain politicians being elected. For example, a 2000 study of Arizona, USA, found that voters' support for a school funding government initiative was greater in polling stations located inside the school, rather than in polling stations located near a school. This is because voters were literally exposed to a school setting (by being inside a school) and were, therefore, primed by the idea of school and education, and, as a result, expressed greater support for school funding. Another study showed that being exposed to images of lockers and school classrooms also yielded greater support for school funding. Being primed by the idea of a school directly impacted peoples' voting decisions and resulted in greater support for this political proposition. Likewise, being exposed to other stimuli will impact other political decisions. The priming effect may also be indirectly responsible for political reformations. For example, widespread ideals of the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries primed large groups of people to prefer ideas of liberty, progress, tolerance, and this widespread preference is credited as one of the driving forces behind the French Revolution. People were primed to prefer a certain type of government, thus they created it. Of-course, there are always exceptions to this idea: peoples' political preferences do not always result in government reformations and political campaigns are not always successful, but it is reasonable to infer that being primed by certain political ideals, propositions, and causes will eventually affect people's voting decisions and cause political change.

A change in politics almost always means a change in a country's economy to some extent. In the school-funding study mentioned above, being primed by schools resulted in greater support for the initiative, which in its turn, may result in economical changes of the state of Arizona. A political decision to increase funding to Arizona schools may mean an increase in the state's government spending, which, economically-speaking, will 'stimulate' the economy and increase the state's Gross Domestic Product (amount of goods produced), causing inflation (increased price levels) and increasing employment within the state. In a similar way, the economy of an entire nation can be affected by political decisions, which in turn, may be affected by voters' decisions. Voters were primed to prefer a certain initiative, therefore, the economy of a nation can indirectly be defined by peoples' minds: what they were primed by and how this priming affected their voting decisions.

The priming effect also plays a key role in the modern preference for consumerism and money-making. A study found that participants who were primed by ideas of money (by being exposed to images of money and the phrase 'a high paying salary’) demonstrated more independent, persevering, self-reliant and selfish behaviours than the non-primed participants. This, in its turn, can have an effect on the economy: in a society where wealth is desired, money-primed individuals are likely to achieve their financial goals (due to increased perseverance and self-reliance, as shown by the study), thus resulting in a greater number of private businesses, start-ups and greater revenues among individuals. This increase may affect the country's taxing system, its imports and exports, and employment: higher revenues often means more taxes for the economy, changes in imports and exports affect price levels, and more companies mean greater employment (more jobs).

Another way that the priming effect affects the economy is through commercial advertising: by being primed by certain products and brands, people come to purchase them. For example, being primed by idealised beauty standards through commercials and magazines results in more people purchasing beauty products, thus the demand for such goods increase. And to satisfy this demand, firms will produce and supply more of these products, thus increasing the price levels in the economy. This may also determine the exchange rate: exporting countries’ currency rises in value and the importing nation's currency may depreciate (fall in value). Therefore, being primed by advertisements and media to prefer certain goods and services indirectly impacts the global economy by a change in consumers’ demand for products, producers’ supply, and international trade. China is a great example of a similar situation: in the 1970s and 1980s, widespread demand for consumer goods (as a result of successful advertising / brand ‘priming’) meant that more American firms began relocating their factories to China in search for more accessible labor. This relocation prompted a sharp increase in available jobs in China, with eventually a whopping 800 million Chinese people moving out of poverty! (The World Bank China Overview). Therefore, we can say that the priming effect (through advertising) has impacted the economy of China and, therefore, helped define the destinies of hundreds of millions of people living there.

To summarise, the priming effect is a phenomenon that can have a significant impact on people's behaviours and actions. These changes in peoples' decision-making have been shown to impact voting on political initiatives, and, subsequently, can impact the economy. Widespread consumerism as a result of being primed for commercial goods and services can influence the economy and, therefore, peoples' lives.

It is crucial to note that topics such as psychology, economics, and politics are extremely complex and diverse and there is no way to make concrete, fool-proof conclusions. This article contains generalisations and my arguments can have numerous exceptions. This work is a result of my own personal reasoning and love towards seeing connections in the world and the society. If there is one message that I want to express in this article, it is this: the human mind is perhaps one of the most powerful mechanisms on our planet. The priming effect is one way of demonstrating the power of our mind and how it helps define the state of the world. :)

Works Cited:

  • S. Adam Brasel, James Gips. Red Bull 'Gives You Wings' for better or worse: A double-edged impact of brand exposure on consumer performance. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 2010; DOI: 10.1016/j.jcps.2010.09.008.

  • Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. 2011.

  • John A. Bargh, Mark Chen, and Lara Burrows, “Automaticity of Social Behaviour: Direct Effects of Trait Construction and Stereotype Activation on Action,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71 (1996): 230-44.

  • Jonah Berger, Marc Meredith, and S, Christian Wheeler, “Contextual Priming: Where People Vote Affects How They Vote,” PNAS 105 (2008): 8846-49.

  • Kathleen D. Vohs, “The Psychological Consequences of Money,” Science 314 (2006): 1154-56.

About the author:

I am a 19-year old girl living on the sunny island of Cyprus! I am currently on a gap year and work in digital marketing. I love everything that has to do with the social sciences and the environment; I organize community clean ups each week and will be studying economics and/or psychology in college!



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