Event essay: The power of behavioural priming

Crawford Hollingworth, founder of The Behavioural Architects, reveals the power of behavioural priming - in particular sensory impacts - and how this can almost predetermine consumers' behaviour at events.

Crawford Hollingworth, founder of The Behavioural Architects
Crawford Hollingworth, founder of The Behavioural Architects

We are often not aware of them, but many tiny influences are at work that can subconsciously impact on how we experience an event or brand immersion.

Psychologists call this effect 'priming', and claim that we are susceptible to very subtle influences on behaviour - through words, all five senses and by our preceding behaviours and actions. Harnessing this is a very powerful way to steer a person's perceptions, decision making and behaviour - not least at an event.

There has been a considerable amount of research on sensory impacts on our behaviour, such as how sounds, smells and touch can influence our actions, as well as how the environment around us as a whole can impact on us.

Individual sensory impacts

We can be primed via any of the five senses, while our sense of touch can impact on our feelings about an encounter and how we later behave. For example, temperature can influence our perceptions: holding a hot cup of coffee has been found to lead us to form warmer impressions of others. People can also be primed by other sensations - texture, weight and hardness of an object, for example - to make social judgments.

There is also evidence that the glass we are holding can affect how we view the quality and taste of wine and champagne. Studies have shown that the size, weight, shape and even the colour of the glass can all have an impact on our perception of both the aroma and flavour of the wine.

We often believe taste to be the crucial element as to whether a meal is good or not. However, the environment in which food and drink are served, and the 'sensory congruency' between the environment and the flavours, can play a significant role in modulating our subconcious responses to food and drink.

Celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal and experimental psychologist Charles Spence have carried out experiments looking into the sensory experience of a meal. One particular study focused on whether sound can augment taste. In it, they demonstrated that people rated bacon-and-egg ice cream as tasting significantly more 'bacony' when listening to the sound of sizzling bacon, as opposed to a farmyard of clucking chickens.

In a second experiment, people rated oysters eaten while listening to the 'sound of the sea' on an iPod - seagulls squawking and waves crashing on the beach - as tasting more pleasant than oysters eaten while listening to the farmyard noises. These findings led directly to the introduction of the 'Sound of the Sea' dish at Blumenthal's restaurant, The Fat Duck. Diners are presented with a plate of food that is reminiscent of a beach, with foam, seaweed and sand all visible on the plate, along with a mini iPod and earphones hidden inside a seashell. Wearing headphones also has an advantage in that it focuses diners' attention on the food by blocking out other sounds in the surrounding environment.

Similarly, brand images have been found to influence behaviour in really interesting ways. Researchers have discovered that priming people with an Apple logo made them think very creatively about a simple task involving unusual uses for a brick, while priming them with an IBM logo made them less creative and less likely to think laterally.

In the same study, priming people with a Disney logo made them more honest.

Multi-sensory impacts

No doubt we can all recall that particular meal or drink in a bar where the experience was truly magical. But when asked which elements came together to create that special experience, we might be at a loss. Professor Charles Spence believes that matching our sensory impacts to an experience can augment that experience as a whole. So when complementary sounds, smells and touch sensations are matched with a certain taste, we perceive and rate that taste to be far better than we might otherwise if these sensory effects were not present.

Spence tested this in a recent experiment at an event in London, where an identical whisky was rated differently by consumers depending on which themed room they were in while drinking it, each with varying sounds, smells, touch sensations and sights. This included a 'grassy' room with turf on the floor, green-leafed plants and a summer soundscape playing in the background. The 'sweet' room, on the other hand, was brightly illuminated by red globes, with high-pitched piano music playing in the background and a bowl of ripe red fruits, while the 'woody' room had wood panelling and was dimly lit, with a soundtrack of leaves and twigs being crunched underfoot.

The results were intriguing: people rated the whisky differently depending on which tasting room they were in, with their ratings of the smell and flavour changing by about ten to 20 per cent as a direct result of the environment. Overall, the participants liked the whisky most when they tasted it in the 'woody' room.

These results present event organisers with an opportunity to enhance people's experience of taste by designing what Spence calls 'congruent multisensory environments' - in other words making the environment match the flavours people are tasting. This has significant implications for consumer environments beyond restaurants and bars - in-flight meals, cinemas, festivals, concerts and ceremonies, for example.

If implemented effectively by brands and their agencies, these insights from the behavioural sciences - in particular behavioural economics - could present a real opportunity to enhance any brand experience or activation.

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