What Is Priming? Make People Choose What You Want

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Nudge" by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What is priming and what is the priming effect? How does priming affect decisions?

Priming is influencing a person to make a certain choice before they have to make it. By making statements or asking questions, you “prime” the person for the result you want.

So, what is priming? Read on to find out.

What Is Priming?

So what is priming? A social-influence nudge need not take the form of a comparison to one’s peers—it can be as simple and inconspicuous as just asking a question! 

Choice architects have discovered that humans can be “primed” to make certain choices. Simply by mentioning a particular choice, or asking people if they intend to perform a certain action, choice architects can nudge people to make that choice or perform that action.

In one study, a nationally representative sample of Americans was asked, “Do you plan on buying a car in the next six months?” What is priming in this situation? The question itself raised purchase rates by 35%! Because the subjects were “primed” to think about buying a car, they ended up actually going out and doing it.

Priming can be even subtler. Studies have shown that when people see objects that symbolize a business environment—briefcases or boardroom tables, for example—they become more competitive and less collaborative; and when they smell cleaning chemicals at their eating space, they tend to keep that space neater as they eat. What is priming in this situation? It is the physical qualities and the smells.

What is priming and how is it related to channel factors? Priming is a type of “channel factor.” Channel factors are seemingly minor or inconsequential influences that have an outsize impact on individuals’ decision making. When one of these influences is removed or altered, the “channel” toward a particular decision can become more direct.

Mandated Choice

What is an example of priming in nudges? The choice architecture that aligns most closely with libertarian paternalistic principles is “mandated choice”—in this instance, the requirement that aspiring or renewing drivers indicate whether they want to or don’t want to be organ donors before receiving their license. What is priming doing here? Given Americans’ general positive sentiment toward organ donation, this strategy of “priming” individuals is likely to result in large increases in organ donors; and it preserves freedom by giving people the choice to opt in or out.

Mandated choice would replace the current “explicit consent” regime, which has “nondonor” as a default and requires people to opt in, typically by checking a box on a driver’s license. Although this strategy preserves choice, it neglects to take into account Human inertia and status quo bias, resulting in large disparities between those who say they want to be organ donors and those who actually check the box to become organ donors.

(Shortform note: Ironically, Thaler and Sunstein don’t consider the possibility that surveys about organ donation might be tainted by “social-desirability bias”—that is, the tendency for subjects to give the socially acceptable answer to a question, even when it’s not what they truly believe. For example, people know they should be organ donors, but, when it comes down to actually committing, they might prefer not to.)

Mandated choice is also superior, in terms of libertarian paternalism, to two other possibilities: “routine removal” and “presumed consent.”

Routine removal is just what it sounds like: The removal of direly needed organs from the deceased or brain dead without consent from either the individual or the individual’s family. In one sense, this is a beneficial default—Georgia, for example, routinely removes corneas from the deceased, resulting in vastly increased numbers of cornea transplant recipients—but, because it limits choice, it cannot be the strategy of libertarian paternalism.

Presumed consent, meanwhile, also works by changing the default: by making everyone a donor and requiring people to opt out. This option preserves choice, rendering it satisfactory under libertarian paternalism; and studies have shown that it drastically increases the number of organ donors. (Unsurprisingly, given Human inertia.) But presumed consent is difficult to enact politically: Individuals and their families are protective of their bodies, and many would object to organ donation being their “default.”

What Is Priming? Make People Choose What You Want

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  • Why subtle changes, like switching the order of two choices, can dramatically change your response
  • How to increase the organ donation rate by over 50% through one simple change
  • The best way for society to balance individual freedom with social welfare

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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