Stereotype Priming

In this month’s newsletter, we continue to explore the topic of Priming. We will look at the effect Priming has on stereotypes and how Priming can directly influence us (and others) to behave in a certain way. We will show that by activating certain stereotypes, we can get people to act in line with other stereotypes pertaining to the same object. Priming is exposing your target to specific stimulus in order to predictably influence their behavior when exposed to future stimulus.

If you haven’t read the previous research into Priming, I highly recommend you read “A Primer on Priming”, before continuing.

Experiments will show that social behavior is often triggered automatically and subconsciously. This behavior is not caused by a person’s perceptions or judgements, but rather an unconscious, automatic response based on previous priming. Previous priming of ideas or stereotypes is efficiently accomplished by repetition. Research by Bargh, Shiffrin, Schneider, Shoda, Mischel, and others has shown that if an individual consistently responds in a certain way to stimulus, future response will be performed automatically. These studies show the power of repetitive priming.

Ideomotor Action

The principal of ideomotor action, defined by William James, states that simply thinking about a behavior greatly increases the chances of engaging in that behavior. The word is derived from the terms “ideo” or idea and “motor” or muscular action. In 1951, a psychologist named Karl Lashley used the term Priming while describing the idea that thought prepares the body for action. Lashley’s example was that of speech. To be able to speak fluently and output your words in a comprehensible way, thought must go into the arrangement and preparation of the words. Ideomotor action happens by merely thinking about a behavior, even if that behavior is negative. In a series of experiments in 1994 entitled “Ironic Processes of Mental Control”, Wegner and crew demonstrated an individual that is consciously trying to stop a specific response actually makes the response much more likely. This is called an ironic process.

In one of Wegner’s tests, individuals that were consciously trying to avoid making sexist comments actually made more sexist comments than those individuals that were just instructed not to make such comments. For example, the test subjects were asked to fill in the blank: “Women who go out with a lot of men are _______”. Those who were instructed not to be sexist were more sexist than those told nothing related to being sexist. This shows us that simply trying to avoid a specific thought or response actually increases the likelihood of the thought or response!

In 1996, Ansfield and Wegner tested the ironic process model again using a pendulum in their paper titled The Putt and the Pendulum: Ironic Effects of the Mental Control of Action. Participants were instructed to not allow a pendulum to move in a certain way, or at all. The pendulum actually moved in the exact way the participants were told to not allow it to move even though they thought they were holding totally still or consciously avoiding moving in the direction instructed not to move. The more load given to the participant (mental load such as counting backward from 1000 or physical load such as holding a brick with one hand outstretched), the more powerful the ironic effects. This research shows the power of intention and the power of our own thoughts to override what we’re trying to accomplish.

This ideomotor action does not only have to come from internal sources such as our own thoughts. In 1984, a psychologist named Leonard Berkowitz showed that violence portrayed in the media could directly influence an individual’s aggression. Berkowitz demonstrated that responses, thoughts, and emotions could all be activated automatically.

An experiment in 1983, performed by Carver, Ganellen, Froming, and Chambers, titled “Modeling: An Analysis in Terms of Category Accessibility” published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology backed up the work of Berkowitz. The experiment consisted of individuals answering a series of questions. Additional participants would be assigned to administer shocks when these individuals answered a question incorrectly. The participants were split into two groups, one primed subliminally with hostility-related primes and the other group exposed to neutral primes. The group receiving the hostility-related primes administered longer shocks than the neutrally primed group. This experiment demonstrated that the activation of hostility not only makes the individual more hostile, but makes the individual more likel y to perceive hostility in another person.



Bargh, Chen, and Burrows, of New York University, took three groups of individuals and primed each group with either polite primes, rude primes, or neutral primes. The primes were administered by using a Scrambled Sentence Test designed by Scrull & Wyer in 1979. The Scrambled Sentence Test gives people five words, displayed randomly, that can be used to construct a four word sentence. Participants were given thirty sets of five scrambled words and told to construct four word possible.

In the group primed with polite words, fifteen of the thirty sets of five scrambled words contained words such as respect, honor, considerate, appreciate, patiently, cordially, yield, polite, cautiously, courteous, graciously, sensitively, discreetly, behaved, and unobtrusively. This group was given a set of words like “they her respect see usually” and asked to construct a four word sentence. The group primed with neutral words had the polite set of words replaced with these words: exercising, flawlessly, occasionally, rapidly, gleefully, practiced, optimistically, successfully, normally, send, watches, encourages, gives, clears, and prepares. This group would receive a set of words like “they her send see usually” and asked to construct a four word sentence. The group primed with rude words were given similar sets of words, but these sets included words such as aggressively, bold, rude, bother, disturb, intrude, annoyingly, interrupt, audaciously, brazen, impolite, infringe, obnoxious, aggravating, and bluntly. This group received words like “they her bother see usually” and asked to construct a four word sentence.

After the participants completed the word scramble test, they were told to go to another room and inquire with an individual as to what they needed to do next. Upon the participant approaching the individual, the individual would pretend to be engaged in conversation with someone else. This mock conversation would continue until the participant interrupted. Time was measured to see how long it took each individual to interrupt. The individuals that were primed with rude words took an average of 326 seconds (5.4 mins) compared to 519 seconds (8.7 mins) and 558 seconds (9.3 mins) as with the neutral and polite groups, respectively. Also, not all participants interrupted the individual’s conversation; however, those primed with rudeness interrupted over 60% of the time compared to just under 40% and 20% for the neutral and polite groups, respectively.

It’s interesting to note that these effects occurred even though being rude goes against the social norms of behavior. This really shows the power and influence of priming, which is able to make us do things that may or may not be in our best interest.


Bargh, Chen, and Burrows second experiment was covered in A Primer on Priming, but we’ll dive a little deeper here. This experiment included two groups of individuals. One group was primed with words relating to elderly people the other group was neutrally primed. Primes were administered the same way as in experiment one using the Scrambled Sentence Test. This time; however, one of the groups were primed with words pertaining to elderly stereotypes such as: Florida, old, lonely, grey, selfishly, careful, sentimental, wise, stubborn, courteous, bingo, withdrawal, forgetful, retired, wrinkle, rigid, traditional, bitter, obedient, conservative, knits, dependent, ancient, helpless, gullible, cautious, and alone. The participants were told they were taking part in a language proficiency test and asked to construct a four word sentence.

After the participants completed the test, they were asked to walk from the testing area to a specified area down the hallway marked by a piece of silver tape. Their walking times were secretly observed. The experiment was done twice, designated by sub-experiment A and sub-experiment B. Amazingly, participants who were primed with the elderly stereotypes were recorded taking an average of 8.28 seconds in sub-experiment A and 8.20 in sub-experiment B to complete the walk in the pre-defined area. The groups primed with the neutral words took 7.30 seconds in A and 7.23 in B.

It should be noted that slow was never used in the elderly prime. There were no mentions of time or speed in the stimulus provided to the participants. Instead, the primes activated the elderly stereotype and the participants acted in ways that are consistent with the elderly stereotype. This stereotype was automatically activated and the resulting actions were done unconsciously in line with the stereotype.

Applications for Social Engineering

How can we use this information to our benefit as a social engineer? We can make use of stereotypes to our advantage. There is a strong link between pretexting and priming. Just as the experiments above indicated, we can prime targets to think a certain way just by the words we use or, as we’ve seen with our previous research, by the clothing you wear. For instance, dress in softer, mild colors and talk and walk slower to prime your targets to be more calm and accepting. Utilize stereotypes to prime your targets and remember that stereotypes do not always have to be negative. Be aware of your surroundings… act and pretext accordingly. The same pretext used elsewhere, may have the opposite effect, depending on the stereotypes in that area.

For the social engineer, understanding ideomotor action is important for your thoughts and state of mind leading up to (and during) an engagement. Lets talk about two ways this can work.

The first is using the idea of automated response by reframing ourselves. Simply thinking about not failing can lead to an increase in your chances of failure. Instead of thinking, “I can’t fail.. I can’t mess this up…” try thinking “I will succeed… I will do well…”. The difference is subtle, but can really make a big difference.

The second way is using the ideomotor or automated responses on your targets. Write down and practice using words that create the desired emotional response in your targets. For example, we know that helping our target to think “happy” can make them more compliant. Words that help build the right emotional state are words like, “Thrilled”, “joyful”, “glad”, “pleased” and many others. Choosing the right words in our opening sentence can help create the right emotional state of mind in our targets.

With Priming working on a subliminal level and being able to create automatic responses in us, how can we possibly defend against it when we are the target? The ideomotor action principle tells us that even if we’re trying not to do something, the mere act of thinking about it will make it happen! What are we to do? Stay tuned to our Newsletter and find out….

Written by: Eric “urbal” Maxwell