God-primes and Social Behavior

"Do unconscious reminders of God influence people's willingness to comply with norms of impersonal fairness?", Joseph Henrich asks in chapter 4 of his book, The WEIRDest People in the World.

Turns out, they do.

In a study conducted in Canada, to answer this very question, participants were given two tasks: First, to unscramble a series of words and make them into a coherent sentence. Afterward, they were asked to allocate $10 between themselves and a stranger. For the first part of the study, groups were unknowingly given either a set of 10 sentences that had God-related terms in them while a control group had sentences that were not God-related. An example given by Henrich in the book and cited in the academic paper reporting the study is this:

Try creating a sentence from these words:

divine dessert the was =

(answer: the dessert was divine)

After completing the assignment, they were tasked with dividing $10 between themselves and a stranger. In the control group, the one with no God-related terms, participants only gave $2.60 to the stranger on average. The most common amount given in this group was $0.00. 40% of the participants in this group chose to not give any to the stranger.

In the experimental group, those who completed the task with God-related terms, gave, on average, $4.60 to the stranger. The most common amount allocated here was $5. Also, the percentage of people who chose to give nothing to the stranger fell from 40% to 12%.

It seems being reminded of God does have some influence over how people behave.


Psychologists call this effect, priming. It explains the act of intentionally or unintentionally changing your behavior based on words, behaviors, or the environment. When you "prime" the bulb before mowing the lawn, you pump gas into the fuel line to ensure the engine starts easier. When someone "primes" you for an action, they do something that makes it easier for you to commit that action.

It's obvious the God-prime is real, as it has been replicated by numerous studies. What I want to know is what else we're being primed to do.


One simple example of priming can be found at the movie theatre (RIP). Right before the movie starts and the lights dim, you're usually shown a high-def version of Coke being poured on ice with realistic sound effects that is followed by popcorn popping and maybe some MNM's jumping around on screen. The movie theatre is priming you to go buy Coke, popcorn, and some candy.

Seeing others faces is an example of priming as well. If you spend time with someone who is constantly happy, smiling, and joyful, you yourself are much more likely to be happy, smiling, and joyful.

A silly example, though very explanative, was something I once saw on TV when I was young, perhaps on Drake and Josh? One character asked another:

"How do you spell fork?" And then they were asked to say it, and then spell it again, and then say it one more time in rapid succession. They were then asked what people eat soup with. The character, being primed by the word fork, naturally said "Fork!" Like I said, silly, but effective at explaining an example of priming.

I'm sure there are many more examples in everyday life of being primed to do something that aren't obvious, I just can't seem to think of anymore right now. But as I've written previously on this blog, it's important to have language to describe certain aspects of life because your worldview is only as big as your language. I'm excited to see what other examples of priming I come across after thinking and writing about this–a classic Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.


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