The Power of Priming

It is a popular belief that you improve the chances of selling your house if the rich smell of coffee brewing is wafting from the kitchen.  First impressions are said to count in an interview. Both ideas are partly true and reflect the power of priming.

   Social psychologists have devised numerous clever experiments with surprising results. One, which is not difficult or expensive to replicate, involves giving a selector either a (very) hot or cold drink before interviewing or even watching a videotape of a candidate who is then rated on various characteristics. The rater who sipped the ice-cold drink thought the candidate cooler in every sense of the word – more stable, more rational, more detached - , than the rater clasping the hot drink. Here temperature primes.

   In another study people were shown films of global warming. They were asked before, and afterwards, about their opinions. Three groups of equivalent people were involved: some sat in a noticeably hot, others a cold, and a third group a comfortable temperature. And yes, you guessed it. Those who sat in the hot room were more affected by the film and changed their attitudes more.

   Another powerful and cheap primer is music. Musical style can influence buyer behaviour in restaurants and shops. How long people stay, how much money they spend, how they rate the place. Play German music in an off-licence and customers more often purchase German wine, play French music and you find a preference for Boredeaux.

   Music determines how long people stay on the line while waiting to be attended by a ‘live person.’ Shops try to prime that “Christmassy feeling” of giving… and buying and spending. Cocktail bars work the trick with South American music.

   Smells work too as applied chemists know. The idea that coffee sells houses may be seriously wrong. Coffee primes Starbucks, Costa, and  early morning for many people. What about baking bread? Much more homely, but how many people bake bread at home? Clean is very important, particularly to women. So what signals clean? Not detergent and disinfectant: indeed the precise opposite. Often air fresheners seem tacky and superficial. Try “clean sheet” smell, or perhaps chopped celery. It all depends on what image you want to convey: is it modern, or sturdy; cosy or stylish? There is a different music or smell to go with each. Just as perfumes suit different people, so does the distinctive and attractive odour in a house

   Colour also can prime, as can light. There are warm colours and cold colours; colours for extroverts and those for introverts. There is soft lighting for romantic dinners and bright lights for business conversations.

   So what are the implications for visitors to corporate headquarters. Are they primed by a ex-weight lifter in an ill fitting suit; a poorly paid immigrant; or an ex-corporal demanding your identification? What comes to mind as you queue to talk to another badly paid foreigner who makes you repeat your name three times and then can’t find the details of your appointment? What does the waiting area look, smell, sound like? What does the reading matter prime?  Is there a TV and what is the channel? Does it indicate a long wait? Who are the other (poor sods) waiting? Go to five restaurants from top of the range to Michelin star and see how they do it. Note how they work to convey the feel of the place.

  Although some organisations have separate buildings or entrances for their serious VIPs, many simply have really nice rooms to entertain the ‘high rollers.’ Yet they all come through reception. The clever ones meet the clients at the door. Everyone has been ‘primed’  to wave these very special people through. The prime – you are expected, important, privileged; we can make thing easy for you. Now go to the boardroom, the VIP suite, the CEO’s office and see what thoughts and behaviours those primes. Is it cold and functional; are the seats set out to be adversarial? What does the art say? Are there barriers – desk, table – between interactors? Are the chairs the same height? And colour? And “seriousness”?

   This is not only about  interior designer. It’s about what places signal and how this affects behaviour. Formal places beget formal interactions. That is why managers sometimes take people offsite for appraisals.

   So much about environments, what about the priming power of clothes, handshake, shiny shoes? Should you look ‘expensive’ or ‘aware’ of high fashion? Glasses on or off? Understated perfume or full on? Workmanlike or international diplomat?

   First impressions do count. And little things make a difference when sectors have to remember a long line up of hopefuls. That odd tie pin; those loud shoes; that wimpish handshake.

   The issue, of course, with all this priming,is how long the effect lasts, as well as the contradictory messages given by different factors. The physically warm (mellow) restaurant, but the cold service.

   Priming involves quickly establishing a mind-set. That mind-set can act as a filter or an organising principle. Information is remembered or forgotten; over or under-emphasised to fit in with that mind-set. Given the cold drink, the interviewer notices the flattened emotion of the person; their talk about tasks over socio-emotional issues.

   But the effect can be quite powerful in selling situations. And yes, it is fragile, and can be contradicted relatively easily. But it is funny what people remember from visits to business places. The environmental determinists remember Churchill who said we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us. Yet we do “leak” our real values in our offices and our behaviours. No propaganda about customer experience can make up for how the little but important things prime us to see others

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