How quickly do you reckon you can spot a word, any word? How rapidly do you think you can tell the difference between two very similar words, such as bateau and gateau? Do you think you could spot the difference between such words even if you were not given the chance to read them? The truth is, we are much faster at reading than we think and we can, in fact, tell the difference between very similar words in fractions of a second. Indeed, research shows that we can spot the difference between similar words FASTER than it takes us to read the individual words themselves.
So, what is going on inside our heads? How come we are so good at spotting words? The answer is in a psychological concept known as priming. What this really means is your brain is essentially pre-programmed to produce a particular response. For instance, if I were to tell you that the most popular colours of websites were blue, black and yellow and then if I asked you what colour would you like your website to be in, the chances are you would respond with either blue, black or yellow. Your brain knows these are the popular colours, so your decision is based on this primary information. If, however, I did not tell you about popular colours of websites and simply asked you what colour you would prefer, the chances are you could say any colour. That’s because now your brain has a free choice.
Priming is often the reason why magicians can do what they do so well…! They essentially force our brains to think along particular lines. If we were not primed by what the magician says or does, we would have a much more free interpretation of their activities and so we might see how they pulled off the trick…!
Similarly, you see priming effects in advertising. Posters down the road from your nearest fast food restaurant will show you the latest ice-cream creation. When you get into the restaurant and they ask, “is there anything else you would like, perhaps a dessert?” your brain is already in “ice-cream mode” and so you say “yes, I’d like a raspberry ripple please”. Without the advert down the road, you are much more likely to have said “no thank you”.
Research has shown the priming effect occurs throughout our daily lives. When you are hungry, images of food that you see online, or in magazines appear brighter and you pay more attention to them than when you see the same pictures and you are not hungry. Our brain has told us we are hungry, it has primed us to be aware of food.
This effect is also shown in recent research looking at words, like bateau and gateau. Hungry people were able to spot the word gateau at lightning speed – much more easily than people who were not hungry. Again, the brains of the hungry individuals had primed them to be on the look out for food. But what this research shows is that this priming effect extends beyond pictures into printed words or words on-screen.
Online this can have a significant impact. When someone is searching for a word or phrase they will instantly spot that phrase in the search results. It means for website owners that the phrasing of their page titles is absolutely crucial. If you do not serve up what people are looking for – exactly – then you will not be able to benefit from the effects of priming. People will not even see your website, even if it is number one in the search results. It suggests that keyword research is completely fundamental to the success of your website.
- Food on the brain: Study finds that hungry people see food-related words more clearly (dailymail.co.uk)
Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist who studies the way people use the online world, in particular how people engage with businesses. He uses this knowledge to help companies improve their online connections to their customers and potential customers and offers consultancy, workshops, masterclasses and webinars. He also speaks regularly at conferences and business events. Graham is an award-winning writer and the author of 32 books, several of which are about various aspects of the Internet. For more information connect with me on Google+