A lot has changed in our world in the last few months. What was “normal” is now considered a potential risk. With so many changes to our lives in such a short time, we can’t help but wonder, what if we’ve all been primed?
“Cover your face and wash your hands.”
“We’re all in this together.”
“The ‘New Normal’”
“Stay home. Stay Safe.”
These are all phrases we have heard over and over again since the coronavirus outbreak took hold of North America mid-march. Versions of these phrases have been used in different languages all over the world. There are even special gifs and stickers on Instagram with these taglines.
This is an example of something called Behavioral Priming, and whether intentional or not, it has helped to get people around the world on-board with COVID-19 social distancing.
What is Behavioral Priming?
“Stay home. Stay safe.” promotes the idea that “By staying home, I am protecting myself and my family.” thus, shaping public opinion.
Another more trivial example is a list of words describing the elderly are then associated with being old. This then affects behavior without necessarily being aware of it. If we’re told “older people are more tired”, the idea is then ingrained in our minds that the elderly don’t have the energy to do high-energy activities, such as running a marathon. It promotes the idea that there are things that older people are not capable of.
The Pros Behavioral Priming
Behavioral priming can be a fantastic tool to “rally the troops” so to speak and get people on board to support good causes. For example, “No means no.” is a tagline of sorts that has been used to promote the need for consent before engaging in sexual activity with another person. The end result is preventing rape and sexual assault.
Using these techniques can help CEOs and leaders to get people on their team for the greater good of their businesses and social causes. It can be used to fight back against many discrimination and promote social change, for example:
- Black lives matter
- Me too
- Me to We
All of these simple phrases helped to shape public opinion to the idea that racism is bad, misogyny and sexual assault is a massive issue that needs to be solved, and that when working together, we have the ability to foster positive change in the world.
In the case of COVID-19, behavioral priming has helped people realize the gravity of the situation and caused us to act collectively to improve the situation.
The Cons of Behavioral Priming
Behavioral priming can also be used as manipulation to convince masses of people to support rather unworthy causes.
For example, behavioral priming was systematically used during World War II to convince masses of people to turn against the Jewish people, which eventually led to the Holocaust. Versions of behavioral priming can also be used in marketing to convince people that they need a certain product or service to appear a certain way, achieve their goals, and live a happy life.
This tool can also cause people to turn people against one another, whether intentional or not. During the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve often heard the phrase “we’re all in this together.” Anyone who does not subscribe to this notion may be seen as outsiders or as a bad person. In turn, they may then be subject to hate, threats, and even violence. Essentially, as much as the goal of behavioral priming is to bring people together, it can also just as quickly create a massive divide that tears people apart.
What if we’ve all been primed?
As with anything, it is never a bad idea to take a minute to think critically about a situation, do some research, and ask some questions. When you’re doing this, however, be mindful of your sources and take caution against extremist opinions that disregard the other side of an argument entirely.
Take a serious look at what exactly it is that these taglines, words, and phrases are trying to achieve: is it to promote positivity and inclusiveness? Do they discriminate against a specific group of people? Is there high-quality evidence to support their cause?
As it applies to COVID-19, all it takes is for one to look at the statistics, speak with a healthcare worker, or talk to someone who has lost a loved one from the coronavirus to know that the current phrases we hear daily are being used in an attempt to protect as many people as possible from dying.
So what if we’ve all been primed? Is this really happening? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. Depending on what you believe in, however, this push towards a collective cause may not necessarily be a bad thing.
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