What is Priming?

How Many People Own That Car?

Volkswagen Golf

What a cute car. Mrs. LaymanPsych would be the only person on my block with one. Except for everyone on the planet that owns one!

A few months ago I was exploring the idea of buying a new car with Mrs. LaymanPsych.  We had a few cars that we thought would fit the bill but she really settled on the Volkswagon Golf.  Affordable, good gas mileage, sporty enough to be fun, and gosh darn-it  was it cute (and what’s more important than cute?).  We visited a few dealerships and even found a few potential cars we figured we might consider purchasing.  We mulled over the decision, weighed in on other cars and tried to establish if it was a cost we wanted to take on.

Something strange started happening over these couple of weeks.  We really thought we had stumbled upon a unique fun little car.  Sure we’d seen a few around here and there but nothing crazy.  Seemingly out of nowhere we started seeing this thing everywhere.  Every time we went out we counted 3, 5, 10 different people driving the Golf. The car was everywhere. It seemed like everyone owned a golf.  A few weeks later we ditched the idea on the Golf. Not because we thought too many people owned them but because a Nissan Altima became available from a family member.

I was happy. Another affordable car with decent gas millage and was well taken care of.  Besides, not too many people own Altimas.  But you know what? Shortly after getting the Altima I started seeing them everywhere. New ones, old ones (like mine).  It seemed like everyone owned an Altima and no one owned anything else…like a Golf.

Obviously the rest of society isn’t changing their cars to annoy me. So what’s going on here?  Often referred to as The Baader-Meinhof Phenomena, this tendency to see things consistently only shortly after first recognizing them is the result of a cognitive bias that leads to a distorted perception of reality (there aren’t actually more VW’s on the road). Part of what is fueling this is Priming.


This story is nothing unique to myself and I know that you’ve experienced it too.  Something that you think is novel, new or obscure suddenly seems very common once you hear about it.  What’s happening here is a simple psychological effect that healthy individuals can’t avoid called priming. When we are exposed to something enough it sort of rises to the surface of our consciousness.  The idea is that by exposing the mind to a stimuli or memory, the pathways to that memory, stimuli, or construct are reinforced.

An analogy: If the park is your memory, then the path from your house to that park is the pathway.  The number of people that use that pathway and the frequency with which it’s used determines how defined the path is.

Our memories work in much the same way.  Since I kept looking up Golf’s online, looking at them in person, thinking about them in the car (should I get a Golf?) then when I’m around them, I’m more likely to see them. Not because there are more of them (obviously) but merely because I have conditioned my mind to be more aware of them.

This is why things like cramming for tests does not work.  Although it seems like you can “prime yourself” for a test, the truth is that there simply isn’t enough time dedicated to a single topic to do well on an entire test. You might be able to cram one formula in your head the night before, but not an entire chapter.  This is also why we are very prone to hearing our name if someone says it in a group of large people (known as the cocktail party effect).

Have you ever experienced this phenomena? Share it in the comments below.


  • Ric D

    I used to call it The Simpsons effect. A certain topic or scenario would be discussed or experienced only to have that same thing crop up on an episode of Simpsons later that day (alternatively, it could happen on The Simpsons and then in real life after). Of course, the reason for this was that The Simpsons was on twice a day every day during my television watching years and so the chances of something cropping up were pretty high.