Once upon a time, in the Wild Wild West, when thirsty cowboys would finally find a well where they could draw water for themselves, their horses and their cattle, they would find a flask or bottle of water next to the pump. In those days, the hose which was supposed to transport the water up from the bottom of the well, was often made of leather or a similar type of material, that would get dry and brittle over time, if it was not used frequently. You could work the pump as much as you liked, but it would not draw up any water for you, as long as the hose was dry and brittle. So you needed to gently pour the water from the bottle provided into the dry hose, which would become moist and more supple in the process. And with that, the cowboys could draw up as much water as they wanted.
This process was called priming the pump.
Thus as a thirsty cowboy, you had to first make a key decision when you got to the well:
Would you quench your thirst immediately, with the water provided in the bottle?
Or would you invest the water into priming the pump, deferring the possible immediate gratification of quenching your thirst, but with the realistic expectation of gaining much more of the precious water in return?
Using Psychological Priming Techniques In Negotiations
Psychological priming techniques essentially leverage a tendency of our minds to take shortcuts when faced with complex decision-making situations. It seems that our mind can consciously juggle only four to nine bits of information at a time. If we are faced with a vast amount of information and variables we need to take into account when making a decision, we reduce the complex rush of input we receive from the world in and around us into a shorthand version of reality.
Cognitive biases are mental shortcuts we use to solve such data-overload situations. They speed up the processing in our brain, but sometimes these shortcuts lead us to drawing conclusions so fast, that we miss what is really important. We tend to look for information that confirms our beliefs and ignore information that challenges them. When pattern recognition fails, we create patterns of our own – the mind fills in the gaps.
Every person, experience and object we encounter triggers an avalanche of associations in our mind, and most of the resulting thoughts, feelings and impressions are biased, based on the shortcuts and mental maps of the world we have created in the past.
Psychological priming takes advantage of these mental shortcuts, which works best if the person being primed is not aware of it. Let us look at a number of priming techniques which are frequently used by expert negotiators to influence the subconscious decision making patterns of the people they find themselves negotiating with:
- Affect heuristic:
First impressions focus your thinking and directly affect any decisions you may take
- Recency bias :
We link what we think and believe to the most recent credible data we have received concerning a topic
- Status & authority bias :
Data and information provided or supported by a credible authority figure is believed more readily
- Conformity bias :
Conformity is a strong, subconscious survival instinct, e.g. conforming to norms, majorities, statistics on best practise, market intelligence, what competitors are doing, etc.
- Availability heuristic :
We believe something to be normal, if we can find an example or a physical representation of it, but don’t believe something exists (or that it is possible), if we have never seen or heard it before. The more available, concrete and credible a piece of information is, the faster you process it and the more you will believe it.
- Confirmation bias :
We like to be told what we think we somehow already knew – this satisfies our need to right
- Hindsight bias :
Even when presented with sensational new information, if it is presented in a credible manner, we asume we really already knew what we just learned, and call it common sense
- Introspection illusion :
We like to believe that we really do understand our true motives, needs and desires, and we like people who help us to maintain this illusion
- Choice supportive bias :
The more expensive a purchase, the greater our loyalty becomes for it. An emotional connection is created to something we view as being precious. Once they have bought something expensive, people will fight very hard to defend their choice and avoid purchaser’s remorse.
At first sight, each one of these priming techniques may seem to be all too obvious, and easy to detect. As expert negotiators know, the real power of priming comes into play when you start stacking them, by using five, six or more of the techniques simultaneously, swiftly and precisely, so that the conscious thinking processes of the counterpart become overwhelmed. As a result, the priming messages slip right past the conscious filtering process and speak directly to the subconscious mind, where the real decision-making happens.
These techniques are so powerful, that even if you happen to detect several of the priming messages your counterpart may be applying during a negotiation, as long as he or she stacks enough of them, one on top of the other, fast enough, and with precision, your subconscious patterns will still be triggered.
So, whenever you are involved in negotiations, ask yourself :
« Am I still driving, or am I being driven ? »