Dilbert does behavioural economics: priming

dilbert priming

This is the last week we have planned of Dilbert does behavioural economics – I for one will certainly be missing it!

This time we are focusing on priming effects – the implicit memory effect in which exposure to a stimulus influences response to a later stimulus. It is a technique in psychology used to train a person’s memory. Some would refer to this as framing, but in the framing effect people react to a particular choice in different ways depending on how it is presented; e.g. as a loss or as a gain. People tend to avoid risk when a positive frame is presented but seek risks when a negative frame is presented. As you can see from the well documented Dilbert research, it is a powerful way of influencing peoples views and thus decisions.

In this strip Dilbert’s boss primes Dilbert’s lack of a salary raise relative to the alternative of being attacked by bears, which Dilbert finds compelling despite of being completely aware of the trick – the beauty of our irrational minds.

But priming can also be a force for good. You talk to someone about the great weather and then ask them how they are doing – and the results will improve substantially. You set your mind looking for certain information and suddenly it pops up everywhere – simply because you look for it. You remind your shoppers about how honest they have been in the past and suddenly shoplifting drops. You set a youthful business environment and there will be a noticeable increase in dynamics.

Of course it also works the other way. My former company was located in an old city castle with long broad halls, high ceilings and individual offices. Sounds pretty cool right? Well, it also creates a certain culture of formality, doing things right (instead of doing right things) and slow things down. It might work as a counter measure against a culture focused on immediate decisions and execution even when it makes sense to think things through to balance things – but this was already a centuries old organisation.

In this respect priming is an excellent example of our cognitive biases, because their effects go both ways, have immediate impact and are actually observable to ourselves to some extent. So if you want to start your behavioural economics journey now, this is a great place to start in thinking through any initiatives that impact either important (like strategy) or many (like execution or customer experience) decisions.


Source: http://dilbert.com/strips/comic/2012-04-06/

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