Can We Subconsciously Prime Kids to Behave?

In 1996, researcher John Bargh did an experiment to see if he could influence behavior with a simple activity. The researchers had three groups of participants. The first group had the “Rude Condition” they had to unscramble a list of rude words like bold, aggressive, disturb. The second group, called “Polite Condition” had a series of polite words like patient, respect and respectful. The last group, the “Neutral Condition” had words that were neither polite nor rude. When a participant was done unscrambling words, they were instructed to walk down the hallway and tell the researcher they were finished. Unbeknownst to them, the researcher would be in a long fake discussion with someone when the participant arrives. The experiment was to test how long it would take for each group to interrupt the researcher to tell him that they were done.

Within 10 minutes, 60% of the rude group had interrupted, while only 40% of the neutral group and 20% of the polite group had interceded. This is a very simple experiment, with a very powerful lesson. It teaches us that people can be subconsciously primed to act differently. How can we use this to our advantage AND avoid the disadvantages of subconscious priming? In one word: Wording.

This is a huge advantage (and potential pitfall) of technology parents often forget. Emails, texting, Evites and Social Networks allow us to prime our kids before they take action. I have begun to use this with teens I work with before meetings. I send out an email using language I want to inspire and avoid words expressing a feeling or action I do not want to evoke. Below are two emails. The first is an email I used to send out before my weekly call with my family clients. It often happens that we are a little pressed for time and have a lot on the agenda to cover. The second is the email I send out now before my calls.

Bad Priming Email:

Hi All,

As usual we have the weekly call tomorrow, Tuesday. Again, we are a little stressed for time and might have some trouble getting through the tasks on the agenda. I need everyone to please tighten up their points and avoid asking slow or lengthy questions on the call—you can send them out in an email later if you need. I attached the agenda.


Good Priming Email:

Hi Team,

Tomorrow is our weekly goals call. I’m hoping we can be really efficient because we do have a lot to discuss. If everyone can take a look at their points and prepare a well-organized overview that would be great, because then we will have plenty of time for succinct questions, if people have them. Remember you can also easily send them in an email after the call. I attached our agenda.



The emails both say the same thing, but when I started to change the emails for more positive priming I found that people were more efficient and excited for the call. It also started a chain of nice follow-up emails. My responses to the first email usually followed my same pattern of using negative, stressful words and phrases. Amazingly, the second email produces kind, efficient language. Notice how I now use words like team, instead of all. I avoid words like stress, pressure, tighten, tasks. Instead I use words like goal, efficient, well-organized and succinct.

This is not tricky, or subversive, it is just expressing what you want to happen with the correct words. In fact, I am now teaching this to parents and teens in the first session and am very transparent about using it. Many of them very much appreciate this effort and use it themselves! I also find their priming emails easier to respond to, less stressful and organized. Another benefit is that even writing this way yourself, helps you feel less stressed because you are not using those words.

I also hear parents do this with their kids. It goes like this:

Bad Priming Talk:

“Kyle, tomorrow we have a very stressful day. I need you to pack your backpack tonight because we have so many things to do on the way to school, I think we might run out of time and then you will be late. You have no late excuses left and they will give you detention if you are late again. So I’m not worried, just keep in mind you might have to rush a little getting ready, ok?”

Good Priming Talk:

“Honey, tomorrow we have some things we need to take care of before school. So, I am hoping you can be really efficient and quick getting ready, that way we will have plenty of time. Would you please pack your back pack tonight so we are prepared for tomorrow morning? That way it should be easy to get everything done.”

The first statement is subtly negative and highlights all of the bad, stressful, worrisome things about the morning. The second, is reassuring, direct and warm. Teens respond to this consciously AND subconsciously in a much more positive way.

I encourage you to try priming not just in emails and interactions, but also in texts to your teenagers. Many parents also complain to me about their teens using harsh or rude language. In preparation for this, parents also use their own harsh language. Using terms you would like them to respond with actually helps with their behavior.

Lastly, you can also do this when you journal or brainstorm. I find if you journal or self-reflect using words of emotions and actions you want to create, you have a much more successful follow-up.

Priming is an interesting way of approaching your own attitude and your child’s. I highly recommend practicing with friends and family members and being transparent about your wanting to produce positive effects with your kids. Remember, if you expect them to misbehave and treat them like they might, they often do not disappoint.


1996 John Bargh, Mark Chen, Lara Burrows. “Automaticity of social behavior: direct effects of trait construct and stereotype.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 71(2), 230-244.

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