Will Smith and the art of influencing people subconsciously

difference between a small business and a startup

There’s a scene in the recent Will Smith movie Focus where seasoned conman Smith is involved in a high-stakes bet.

He lets the gent against whom he is betting randomly choose the number of a football player from the teams below them in the stadium.

If Will Smith’s offsider (Margot Robbie) also chooses the same random player, Smith wins. If not, he loses everything.

Spoiler alert, both choose player 55 and Smith wins.

Turns out that there was nothing random about number 55 at all.

Smith and his cohort had spent the day “priming” their victim to subconsciously recognise and choose the number 55 by having it represented all around him. On the lapel of the hotel doorman, in the light fixtures, a poster in the elevator, on shirts people on the street are wearing, and even in a Rolling Stones track playing in the background.

By the time he needs to choose a number, the choice has already been made.


Priming is one of the most important psychological principles to understand because it influences behaviour through implicit memory. In other words, exposure to a cue in one setting can form an association that carries into another.

One of my favourite examples of priming comes to us from a supermarket bottle shop.

Imagine one week you go into the bottle shop and there’s some French music playing in the background. You buy your wine and leave.

Now imagine you return a week later, but this time German music is piping through the speakers. Again, you buy your wine and leave.

Chances are that when French music was playing, you purchased French wine, and when German music was playing, German wine, just like 77% and 73% of research participants did.

Were these consumers aware of the music and its impact on their decision?  Eighty-six percent of people said no, the music had no effect. Kinda scary, isn’t it?

More recently, priming has been found to influence children’s food intake. In this case 300 children aged eight, 12 and 13 were exposed to overweight cartoon characters.

The research found: “They have a tendency to eat almost twice as much indulgent food as kids who are exposed to perceived healthier looking cartoon characters or no characters at all”.

Using priming

Given priming occurs at an unconscious level, a great deal of caution and consideration is required before you use it as a deliberate technique.

But here’s the kicker – you are priming and being primed whether you want to or not. Just because you haven’t set out to “prime” someone doesn’t mean you aren’t. So are you doing it in a way that supports your goals and theirs?

How is your website priming your customers? Your collateral?

How is your lighting affecting staff performance? Your noise levels and choice of music?

Be in no doubt that the environment you construct for your customers, staff and yourself is having an impact on behaviour. The question is whether you are priming the behaviour you want?

P.S. Click here to see a YouTube clip from Focus that explains the techniques used.

And here are the wine study by North, Hargreaves & McKendrick 1999 and the plump cartoon character study by Campbell, Manning, Leonard and Manning 2015.


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