Using Associations To Prime Social Behaviour

Every colour, word, smell, image, sound provokes a set of associations we inherited growing up (and a few before we were born).

These associations prime our behaviour in curious ways.

For example, when we say something is “not scary“, “not bad“, or  “not dangerous” our brain instantly picks up on the words ‘scary’, ‘bad’, and ‘dangerous’ and primes our mental pathways accordingly (which influences our actions).

Right now your brain is associating this post with scary, bad, and dangerous….Boo!

This has an impact in social settings too.

Let’s imagine you wanted to prime members to participate. You need to create connections to objects that they associate with participation. Does ‘sign up’, ‘register’ and ‘add your thoughts’ create the right associations?

There’s a big difference between using the words  ‘post’, ‘create’, ‘share’, and ‘submit’ and using the word ‘publish’ for example. Each conjures very different associations. There’s a big difference between being labelled as a member, contributor, author, or volunteer too.

Think of the images that are displayed on your site too. Are they stock images used to fill gaps because ‘images are good‘? Are they photos of people similar to the members you’re trying to reach (or aspire to be) taking the actions you want your members to take? Does your audience see people like them doing what you want them to do?

Are the images of people you feature expressing the emotions you want members to feel when they read the post?

Consider the colours. What best primes members for the actions you want them to take? If you want safe/standard ideas use the blues and greys to match. There’s a guide here. If you want the scary and dangerous ideas (yikes, did it again!) use the reds and purples. You can even consider the font you use too. Here’s another useful guide.

You can create use second tier connections too. When primed with words like forgetful, wrinkle, people walk slower. What works objects in your sector conjure up images? Perhaps New York with ambition? Family with compassion? Beaches with relaxation? These can easily prime the type of contributions you will receive.

Sadly different groups make different associations with different objects. Colours can mean different things to many people.

A simpler way of thinking about this. What do you want members to be thinking when they move from one stage (room/page) to another? What will prime them to take the kind of contributions you want them to take? If you want them to read, ask them to read. Call them an audience. Tell them about your ‘latest updates’. If you want them to reply, ask them to review, test, or check the material etc.

There is a LOT of scope for improvement here. At the very least, we can be more careful about not creating associations we don’t want. That would be a killer mistake.


  1. catykobe says:

    The link points to http://localhost/ so it’s broken when you try to click through. Just an FYI! :smile:

  2. Sarah Hawk says:

    Eeeeek, thanks @catykobe – I’ll get that sorted asap!

  3. Richard Millington says:


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