The science of primes

The Psychological Science of Primes

In psychology, a prime is anything that triggers a thought in your mind. For example, as soon as your brain detects the word panda, or sees a picture of one, it prepares itself to think about pandas by bringing anything that you associate with the concept "panda" (cute, zoo, bamboo) to the front of your mind. That happens instantly and subconsciously, and it's a great feature of your brain for thinking quickly. For example, if you see a rattlesnake on the ground, having the concept "poisonous" automatically come to mind will keep you from getting any closer to it.

A group of related concepts is called a schema, and you essentially have a schema about everything... including one about yourself. Your self-schema contains everything that you think and feel about yourself, such as the personality traits, values, and beliefs that make you who you are.

Psychological research has shown there are a lot of influences over your feelings, decisions, and actions, one of which is whatever thoughts happen to be more accessible at that moment (even if you're not consciously aware of it). For example, in one research study, participants who worked in a room that smelled just a bit like a popular cleaning product were more likely to clean up after themselves than those who were not exposed to the smell (1). The smell primed their "cleaning" schema, so people were more likely to think about cleaning, and then actually do it... even though they did not notice the subtle smell at the time.

Seeing the prime "I am Loved" will activate the thoughts associated with the people that love you, and who doesn't want to feel loved? Seeing "strong" reminds you that you have the inner strength and determination to triumph, just as seeing "breathe" in the mirror can remind you to be mindful, present, and at peace. By priming important parts of your personality, you remind yourself of who you really are and who you can be, and it strengthens that aspect of your self-schema. The stronger that concept in your mind is linked to you, the more it guides you.

"PrimeMeTee is using one of the most well-supported ideas in all of psychology, priming, and it makes perfect sense that a prime in the mirror would nudge people toward a better day." - Steven Buzinski, Ph.D., Social-Cognitive Psychologist - University of North Carolina.

Why prime with mirror images?

Think of your reflection as the most powerful prime you can encounter. When we look at ourselves, and increase the accessibility of our self-schema, we are more self-aware and less likely to give into all of the external social pressures on our thoughts and feelings (2). The stronger the association between your reflection and any particular concept, the more that concept will come to mind when you think about yourself, and even make decisions (3).

That gives us two reasons to design primes that are inverted... first, it ensures that the you see the prime the way it was intended, just for you! Some of the designs are subtle enough that most people may not even notice there is a message on the shirt, but you'll always see it whenever you see yourself. Second, some people like the obviously coded message, and you're definitely going to have people asking you what "3v1t637>" means. Those seemingly random characters look like the word "creative" in the mirror.

"I wanted to create something that leverages solid psychological research to have a positive effect on other people. One day, while looking in the mirror, I realized the answer was right in front of me... design the right message for the right moment." - Scott Roberts, Ph.D., Social Psychologist, University of Maryland, and founder of PrimeMeTee.

Selected references

  1. Holland R.W., Hendriks, M., & Aarts, H. (2005). Smells Like Clean Spirit. Nonconscious Effects of Scent on Cognition and Behavior. Psychological Science 16(9), 689–93.
  2. Froming, W.J., Walker, K.J., & Lopyan, K.J. (1982), Public and private self-awareness: When personal attitudes conflict with societal expectations. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 18(5), 476-487.
  3. Bender, J., O'Connor, A.M., & Evans, A.D. (2018). Mirror, mirror on the wall: Increasing young children’s honesty through inducing self-awareness. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 167, 414-422.

Learn even more about the science of primes, schemas, and self-awareness at OpenPSYC, a free resource for psychology students.