Priming the Mathematical Mind

“The merit of painting lies in the exactness of reproduction. Painting is a science and all sciences are based on mathematics.” -Da Vinci

Take a moment to read the phrase: “The hungry caterpillar ate the juicy leaf.”

Now quickly complete the word by filling in a missing letter: SO_P.

Out of curiosity, did you complete the word using the letter U to make SOUP? According to Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow, after processing the words HUNGRY and ATE in a sentence, we are primed to select the letter U in the word above since SOUP is associated with the words HUNGRY and ATE. Let’s explore this a little bit, and see if and how we might think about using this idea in our math classrooms.

What is the Priming Effect?

An idea in our memory is associated with many other ideas. These associations may be categorical, such as connecting the words FRUIT and APPLE, or property-based, such as connecting ADDITION or MULTIPLICATION to COMMUTATIVITY. Ideas may also be associated through effects like how we may connect ALCOHOL to DRUNK, or CIGARETTE to CANCER. When primed with one of the links in an association, our mind has the ability to bring the other familiar and associated words into our working memory.

What Does Priming Look Like?

When priming occurs it is subconscious and Kahneman argues that we are likely not to believe it is occurring due to the way our brain functions (our brain allows us to believe that we are in full control). He mentions several studies in his book, but I will touch on only two to give you a sense of how priming is at work. In the first, participants were primed with images of money. The group that was primed with money images became more individualistic – less likely to help others and less likely to ask for help – on tasks that followed.

In the second group, it was shown that actions can also be primed. In this study, children read sentences involving words associated with the elderly such as  FORGETFUL, BALD, GRAY, and WRINKLE. None of the sentences explicitly mentioned mentioned the elderly. When the participants were asked to walk down a hallway, they did so at a much slower pace than normal. The reverse association was true as well: children who were asked to walk slowly for a period of time were more apt to recognize words associated with old age.

Can We Use Priming in Mathematics Class?

I wonder if mathematics teachers have been using this idea already? In most classes and assessments, we tend to be explicit with word choice when we are asking students to perform a task. For example, if I want my students to think in a linear way, I could use an associated word like SLOPE or a similar word like STRAIGHT to help them recall ideas around linear functions. Use of certain cues to aid in recall are most likely beneficial since we know that recall of facts helps with both storage and retrieval strength. I could also see the argument of priming allowing students to access previous knowledge, which may be an appropriate action during the set-up of a teaching task.

On the other hand, we do have to be aware that priming may occur without our knowledge at any given time. That is, if we utilize unnecessary pictures or words to aid in a mathematical task, our students may be thinking about what we don’t want them to think about!


What would zombies in a fraction activity prime students to think about? Does it help them think about fractions? The use of zombies doesn’t serve the mathematics (or vice versa).


What would zombies in an exponential functions activity prime students to think about? Does it help them think about exponential functions? Here there may be an argument that the use of zombies serves the mathematics (and vice versa).

In closing, the priming effect is an interesting process to be aware of in our classrooms. However, Kahneman notes that the effect doesn’t work with all individuals, so we do not have to worry about students becoming zombies to priming effects. In addition to this, it seems that the priming effect has been under scrutiny for robustness, including replicability of certain findings. Perhaps we will have to wait to see what color the first coat is before delving deeper into this theory in our classrooms.


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