How priming research has come of age… and why every head should know about it

Since the 1970s a research agenda has emerged around the cognitive functions that underlie unconscious mental processes. Many different ideas and research streams have informed aspects of how the mind responds to the world on the boundary between our conscious control and unconscious automatic response.

Why priming has come to our attention

Priming research has come of age not a moment too soon. Racial biasing, online political campaigning, social media likes and fake news are all instances of social priming on a mass scale. These rapidly growing, and largely concerning, levers upon the unconscious mind need to be understood. It’s fair to say we are behind the curve.

At STEER I lead research into social priming effects on children in schools. I felt it may be useful to provide you with, in this thought piece, a brief survey of the history of social priming studies, what we know, what we don’t and where things are going.

Early research

In 1977, in a series of studies, Berkley cognitive scientists Walter Schneider and Richard Shiffrin described how the mind processed familiar and repetitive tasks/data faster and less consciously than novel data and tasks. They called this process ‘automatic thinking’.

Down the road at Harvard the following year, Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor coined the term ‘cognitive miserliness’. Their work evidenced that the mind will choose the lowest cost route to a solution rather than choosing a more effortful, higher cost route which may be more accurate. This was an important realisation that conscious, accurate processes are effortful- and that the mind will typically default to more automatic ones, less conscious responses.

Daniel Kahneman

Over a decade-long period in the 1970s and 1980s Stanford psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky led research into error-making within thinking. Their work evidenced that the mind will often fail to detect logical fallacies presented to it, choosing instead solutions which are less complex and less effortful. This leads to errors of judgment and decision making. Kahneman went on to describe various forms of bias which seemed to involve thinkers substituting complex, abstract computations with personal, experiences of the same event. He concluded that a critical element of this quicker kind of thinking was the substitution of the abstract with the personal, imagined, first person scenario.

Kahneman applied these conclusions to the fields of economics, in work later awarded a Nobel Prize, showing how trading decisions which were thought to be rational were often in fact irrational and errorful. The evidence that collective biasing could have an impact on real world events, previously thought to be controlled by rational thinking, was mounting.

John Bargh

Yale psychologist John Bargh then provided the next piece to the jigsaw in the 1980s-90s. In a series of experiments he, and colleagues, evidenced that the mind is unconsciously influenced by environmental cues around it. Negative messages heard or read, resulted in unrecognised physical avoidance movements; being exposed to messages about being elderly caused participants to walk slower; being in a group resulted in unrecognised mimicking behaviours; racial biases were reinforced by priming with coloured faces. Positively, candidates exerted more cognitive self-control when primed with words around thinking carefully before responding.

These so called environmental priming effects evidenced the influence surrounding environment has on biasing the responses of the mind, and body, without our conscious awareness. Not all results were replicated in independent studies, suggesting some effects were weak or culturally specific.

Roy Baumeister

In parallel to this work on priming, Roy Baumeister at Florida State was leading a field of research into the properties of self-regulation. Contra Bargh inter al. Baumeister was interested in the properties of the mind that could exert conscious, effortful control over choices and decision making. Research evidenced that self-regulation was not only an important property underpinning maturation and healthy social-emotional functioning; it was also effortful and demanding. Like using a muscle, self-regulation could be improved by training; but it was also depleted by exhaustion. Our capacity to think and respond consciously, against an automatic response, was negatively related to the amount of effort we had already put into doing so.

A picture of the interactions of environmental priming and individual self-regulation was emerging. Environmental priming causes individuals to adjust their behaviours and thoughts automatically and largely unconsciously. Becoming aware of, and resisting, such priming required effortful control, through conscious alternatives.

As far as we understand it at the present time, both environment and individual interact, like a driver steering along a road which signposts their speed and driving behaviours. To improve the quality of the driver, you needed to both improve the road signposts, but also train the driver to steer.

The research work of STEER

The research work of STEER has been to apply these findings to the context of school and education. Our own research has involved innovating a technology which isolates and measures that steering the mind, whilst eliminating or significantly reducing the noise of other cognitive activities. This has allowed us to reliably measure the effects of pupils’ steering on educational outcomes, wellbeing, welfare risks and learning.

STEER technologies measure the effects of school priming on the minds of pupils in relation to their social, affective and cognitive biases. AS Tracking, for example, measures the impacts of school signposting on the social-emotional biases of both individuals and whole cohorts of pupils, as they go through their school career. CAS Tracking, launched in 2018, measures the impacts of classroom signposts on the biases that effect pupil’s learning.

Our goal is to improve educational outcomes by improving the signposting of the school road. Whilst education has long focused on developing the power of the mental engine, we believe it is in its infancy in training the young mind to steer.

In an age when online information, data and opinion biases our knowledge and decision-making ever more universally, we believe that improving the ability of the mind to steer will become an increasingly urgent educational goal.