Sandberg calls it the ‘stereotype threat’ – that if you suggest a stereotype to people, they are likely to live up to it. So, as boys are stereotyped as better at maths and science than girls, you ask children to tick a gender box on the top of their maths test. The girls then perform worse.* But it’s also an example of social priming.
Here’s another example: students were given words that reminded them of elderly people, such as retirement, wrinkle, forgetful, in an unrelated test then measured secretly as they walked down the corridor. Those primed with elderly words walked more slowly than those primed with neutral (unless you disliked elderly people, and then you walked faster!) Another group were primed with rude and neutral words: those with rude were more likely to interrupt.*
So even the words we use, without being aware of it, change the way we act towards others. Considering how often we’ve filled in our names and dates of birth on the front of tests, how have we quietly primed ourselves to succeed or fail, based off subliminal stereotypes?
Currently, priming is having a moment of crisis, as some studies fail to replicate the original results. (Replication means the ability of an entire study to be done again, or done by other people, to cross-check the results, and is a cornerstone of scientific knowledge.)*
Yet social priming still seems a powerful tool. How can we overturn the implicit stereotypes in our society? And how can we use our primed selves to demonstrate greater empathy, or prime ourselves for more positive traits?
And if you suddenly feel a little more frail, check the photo at the top of this post again, and wonder if you’ve been primed.