In psychology, priming refers to instances where exposure to one stimulus affects a subsequent response to a second stimulus. Priming can occur outside conscious awareness and can affect not only cognitive processing but also behavior.
Meyer and Schvaneveldt (1971) were among the first researchers to discover this phenomenon.
In their research, the word “nurse” was recognized more rapidly if a person had been presented the word “doctor” beforehand, compared to when they were presented the word “bread” beforehand.
Research has since identified numerous types of priming, including perceptual priming, semantic priming, associative priming, affective priming, and cultural priming (to name a few).
You will often be asked to provide scholarly definitions for terms in your essays. For that, you can turn to definitions such as the following:
- “A technique in which information is temporarily brought into memory through exposure to situational events, which can then influence judgments entirely out of awareness” (Stangor, Jhangiani & Tarry, 2022, p. 729)
- “…the activation of certain thoughts or feelings that make them easier to think of and act upon.” (Kearns & Lee, 2015)
- “changes in behavior as a result of experiences that have happened frequently or recently” (University of Minnesota, 2010, p. 314)
From that third definition, I like the follow-up sentences which explain it with a discussion of how priming can affect both thought and behavior:
“Priming refers both to the activation of knowledge (e.g., we can prime the concept of “kindness” by presenting people with words related to kindness) and to the influence of that activation on behavior (people who are primed with the concept of kindness may act more kindly).” (University of Minnesota, 2010, p. 314)
(References for these sources listed at the end of the article in APA style).
Types of Priming
Psychologists have identified many different types of priming. Some of the most common types include:
- Perceptual priming: When two things are perceived to be similar, even if they aren’t. For example, if someone sees a cloud that looks remarkably like a boat, then they are asked to name a form of transport, they might say: “boats!”
- Semantic priming: Semantic priming is all about priming by presenting people with associated categories. For example, tables and chairs are both in the category “furniture”, so they may help prime one another in memory retrieval.
- Associative priming: This occurs when two concepts are regularly associated with each other, even if they are from separate semantic categories. For example, we often associate travel with cameras. They’re not semantically related, but nevertheless are often associated, so they might prime one another.
- Affective priming: Affect is about how we feel. If you are in a bad mood at work and you come home to your partner, you may suddenly start thinking of all the things you don’t like about him because one negative emotion is priming subsequent negative emotions in a new context.
Other types include response priming, anti-priming, kindness priming, cultural priming, and masked priming.
Priming Examples in Psychology
- Being primed with the color yellow will make a person more likely to recall yellow objects, such as lemons or bananas ─ Associative Priming
- Seeing a fox will make it more likely that a person will think of a dog than an elephant ─ Perceptual Priming
- When a person is in a negative mood, they are more likely to remember events in their past that were unpleasant ─ Affective Priming
- The word “bat” will be more quickly recognized after seeing the word “baseball” than after seeing the word “harmonica” ─ Semantic Priming
- After looking at photos from their trip to Japan, a Western person may begin to see the disadvantages of an individualistic society when watching news in their hometown ─ Cultural Priming
- After seeing fast food TV commercials all day, a viewer may me more inclined to eat a hamburger than a salad ─ Associative Priming
- Being in a very good mood, a teacher is more lenient in their grading ─ Affective Priming
- Whenever a person drives by a hospital, they immediately start to think about doctors and nurses ─ Semantic Priming
- Sipping on green tea might make a person start to think of their time in the Far East ─ Cultural Priming
- After watching a documentary on shark attacks, a person might become easily started at the sight of a large fish when swimming in the ocean ─ Perceptual Priming
Case Studies of Priming in Psychology
1. Priming And Shopping
On your way to a local sports store, you pass by several advertisements for high-end, prestigious brands. When you finally get to the store, you see several brands of t-shirts, some that have excellent reputations and some that are lower quality. So, which brand of t-shirts do you think you will purchase?
This is the type of question examined in a study by Chartrand et al. (2008).
Research participants were asked to unscramble a set of 5 words and make a 4-word sentence. Half of the participants unscrambled words that had the word “prestige” embedded; the other half of participants unscrambled words that had “frugal” embedded.
Five minutes later they read a description about going shopping to buy socks: Nike socks (1 pair for $5.25) or Hanes (2 pair for $6).
“A greater proportion of participants chose the higher-priced Nike socks in the prestige condition than in the thrift condition” (p. 192).
Even though participants did not believe the unscrambled words affected their decision, it clearly did.
Dr. Robert Cialdini is one of the major researchers in the area of persuasion and social influence. His work has spanned several decades and had a major impact in social psychology, marketing, and leadership.
According to Cialdini, not only is the content of the message essential to persuasion, but what is said before the message also plays a significant role in the receptiveness of that message.
As he states on this PBS NewsHour segment:
“Pre-suasion is the practice of getting people sympathetic to your message before they experience it.”
Pre-suasion is a manipulation technique that can occur outside of conscious awareness and alters the way in which we perceive a subsequent message.
It can makes us more or less receptive to a message and steer our behavior in a certain direction. And yes, it is perfectly legal.
3. Contextual Priming And Voting
Priming studies are usually conducted in laboratory settings so researchers can control extraneous variables that might interfere with the study. This is an element of scientific rigor that allows the researcher to isolate the main variable of interest.
It also means the study lacks real-world application, called external validity.
That issue doesn’t exist in a study conducted by Berger et al. (2008) on how the location of voting affects actual voting.
The researchers analyzed the pattern of voting in a general election in Arizona. The election included an initiative to raise the state sales tax from 5.0 to 5.6% to increase spending on education.
The results demonstrated that “People who voted at schools were more likely to support the education funding initiative” (p. 8846).
There are numerous factors that might influence a person’s vote on a tax increase, including various demographics and party affiliation.
4. Affective Priming And Depression
For many decades, clinical psychologists have observed that depressed people tend to recall unpleasant events. This is called mood-congruent-memory (Faul & LaBar, 2022).
Unfortunately, this tendency also operates when interpreting current events and interactions with others (Watkins, 2002).
For example, a clinically depressed individual may attend a social gathering and have an entire night of pleasant interactions.
The next day however, they may only talk about the brief unpleasant encounter they had with one individual. In fact, they may ruminate on that sour interaction for days.
As Watkins explains,
“the tendency for depressives to dwell on more negative than positive aspects of an experience (referred to by cognitive therapists as the mental filter), could be the result of a negative implicit memory bias regarding the event…” (p. 382).
We could easily substitute the term “priming” for “implicit memory” and the explanation would still work quite well.
5. Semantic Memory Network And Spreading Activation
Another example of how priming works was presented by Collins and Loftus (1975). These researchers postulated that semantic information is stored in memory in a network of linked concepts.
Concepts that are very related have strong links. When one concept is activated, either through priming or some other means, other concepts that are related will also be activated.
This activation spreads throughout the network, activating other concepts, until it eventually loses energy and dissipates completely.
As Collins and Loftus explained:
“The more properties two concepts have in common, the more links there are between the two nodes via these properties and the more closely related are the concepts…When a concept is processed (or stimulated), activation spreads out along the paths of the network in a decreasing gradient” (p. 411).
Teachers regularly use priming to help stimulate learning. It is a common pedagogical strategy that fits within the scaffolding theory.
This involves presenting associated information to stimulate thinking or push students in the right direction. An English teacher, for example, might be trying to get students to think of the word “happy”, but the students can’t think of that word. So, the teacher goes: “You know this word. Here’s a picture of a mother and son playing in the park. Does that stimulate your thinking?” With the picture, the associated word “happy” might pop into their mind.
2. Marketing and Advertising
Marketers use priming in advertising to get potential customers to think of their products.
For example, a major brand’s colors might be red and yellow. They might really heavily push those two colors in their adverts to ensure there is brand awareness.
Then, they might pay a large chain of malls to paint their food halls in the brand’s colors. These colors may – subliminally – stimulate thinking of the brand, encouraging people to say “wow, I want that brand’s burgers!” Without even showing the brand image or name, the brand is thought-up.
Priming is a process that influences a person’s response to subsequent stimuli or concepts activated in our memory network. Priming usually occurs outside of conscious awareness, which means it has an affect but a person doesn’t realize it.
There are many types of priming: affect priming influences our mood; associative priming makes us more likely to think about certain concepts; and cultural priming can alter our perceptions of cultural norms and customs.
Priming can alter our memory of past events and affect how we react in a given situation. It is used in marketing to influence consumer behavior and some research has even demonstrated that priming can affect how people vote.
Aydinli, A., & Bender, M. (2015). Cultural priming as a tool to understand multiculturalism and culture. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(1). http://dx.doi.org/10.9707/2307-0919.1134
Berger, J., Meredith, M., & Wheeler, S. C. (2008). Contextual priming: Where people vote affects how they vote. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(26), 8846-8849.
Chartrand, T. L., Huber, J., Shiv, B., & Tanner, R. J. (2008). Nonconscious goals and consumer choice. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(2), 189-201.
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Collins, A. M., & Quillian, M. R. (1969). Retrieval time from semantic memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 8(2), 240-247.
Collins, W. M., & Loftus, E. F. (1975). A spreading-activation theory of semantic processing. Psychological Review, 82(6), 407-428.
Faul, L. & LaBar, K. (2022). Mood-congruent memory revisited. Psychological Review. https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000394
Kearns, T., and Lee, D. (2015). General Psychology: An Introduction. Milwaukie: NOBA Project.
Meyer, D. E., & Schvaneveldt, R. W. (1971). Facilitation in recognizing pairs of words: evidence of a dependence between retrieval operations. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 90(2), 227.
Stangor, C., Jhangiani, R., & Tarry, H. (2017). Principles of social psychology. Vancouver: BC Campus.
University of Minnesota. (2010). Introduction to Psychology. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
Watkins, P. C. (2002). Implicit memory bias in depression. Cognition & Emotion, 16(3), 381-402.