Priming refers to the process of temporarily activating an individual’s mental constructs (i.e., trait concepts, stereotypes, contexts, goals) and observing the subsequent effect of this activation on psychological, social, and/or motor behavior phenomena. Every individual possesses a set of mental representations (that are constantly being added to or developed) about themselves and the world around them that influence the way in which they perceive their environment and govern how they function within it. These representations or constructs are stored at a subconscious level, and their accessibility is dependent on how frequently they are activated. These differences in activation can, in turn, lead to individual differences in perception and action. The aim of priming is, therefore, to activate a particular representation in one situation so that it is readily accessible, and hence, the probability of its use in a subsequent task or situation is enhanced.
Research has consistently demonstrated that a behavioral response “to an implicit or subconscious cue can be elicited despite [the individual being] unaware of the nature of the cue or even that the cue was presented” (Hull et al., 2002, p. 406). For example, many studies have observed that participant perceptions of an individual displaying an ambiguous expression or behavior are synonymous with the personality construct (i.e., happy or sad, hostile or kind, rudeness or politeness) that has been activated in a previous priming task. In all cases, the participants are unaware of the link between the memory-based, grammatical, or pattern recognition task that they have completed (which contains the primes) and the perception or behavior they are exhibiting. With regard to the motor behavior–sport context, priming has been utilized successfully to change or enhance both motor skill execution and exercise intensity. For example, researchers have demonstrated that exposing participants to elderly stereotype primes via a grammatical task reduced their walking speed on departure from the laboratory compared with their control counterparts.
Subliminal priming involves the brief presentation of a priming stimulus (the prime), which is immediately masked via the presentation of a second stimulus (e.g., a pattern or letters). The duration for which the prime is presented falls below a consciously perceptible threshold; John A. Bargh and colleagues noted that this is ~15 ms for primes located within central vision and up to ~90 ms as they move toward peripheral vision. Yet despite the prime being of insufficient length to enter conscious awareness, a cognitive behavioral response is still elicited.
Supraliminal priming is also known as conscious priming because the priming stimuli that are presented are detectable to the individual; they are presented explicitly within the task being completed. However, while the stimuli might be fully perceptible, the individual is not aware either of the association between the prime and target behavior or, in many cases, that something other than what is perceived to be the primary task is being assessed. The most commonly adopted supraliminal priming technique is the “scrambled sentence task.” This task requires participants to reorder a series of words to form a grammatically correct sentence. Participants are therefore exposed to the prime concept via the words that are embedded within the task.
In examining subliminal and supraliminal priming, however subtle or implicit researchers perceive the priming stimuli to be, it is imperative that participant perceptions of the experiment and the link between the prime and target behavior are assessed in order to determine whether they were consciously aware of the prime stimuli. While researchers strive to disguise prime presentation, it should also be noted that conscious recognition of primed items might not necessarily have an impact on test performance.
Behaviors elicited as a result of priming are directly associated with their content, although depending on the mental constructs that are activated and the judgment formation or encoding that takes place, researchers may observe assimilation or contrasting behavior or performance outcomes.
Assimilation refers to a response that corresponds to the mental construct that has been activated by the prime. For example, primes may be presented that evoke an automated or external focus of attention in skilled performers; thus, in a pressurized condition, automated, fluent performance should ensue rather than performance disruption occurring as a result of explicit monitoring.
Contrast, on the other hand, refers to responses that are displaced from the mental constructs that were activated. This often occurs when extreme exemplars are utilized as prime stimuli, which elicit a comparative judgment and subsequent divergent response. For example, with a prime that identifies a well-known and highly skilled footballer (e.g., Lionel Messi) as a standard of comparison, the participant’s perception of their own football skills or that of an “ambiguous” fictitious football player may be deemed particularly poor and decrements in skill or actual performance may be observed. A contrast effect can also occur when a participant becomes aware of the incidence of the prime and/or its potential effect. So, in instances where a researcher may anticipate assimilation, they may actual observe a contrast effect as the participant adjusts their behavior to counteract the perceived influence of the prime.
- Ashford, K. J., & Jackson, R. C. (2010). Priming as means of preventing skill failure under pressure. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 32, 518–536.
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- Bargh, J. A., & Chartrand, T. L. (2000). The mind in the middle: A practical guide to priming and automaticity research. In H. T. Reis & C. M. Judd (Eds.), Handbook of research methods in social and personality psychology (pp. 253–285). New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Bargh, J. A., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 71, 230–244.
- Bry, C., Meyer, T., Oberlé, D., & Gherson, T. (2009). Effect of priming cooperation or individualism on a collective and interdependent task: Changeover speed in the 4 x100-meter relay race. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 31, 380–389.
- Dijksterhuis, A., Chartrand, T. L., & Aarts, H. (2007). Effects of priming and perception on social behavior and goal pursuit. In J. A. Bargh (Ed.), Social psychology and the unconscious: The automaticity of higher mental processes (pp. 51–132). Philadelphia: Psychology Press.
- Hull, J. G., Stone, L. B., Meteyer, K. B., & Matthews, A. R. (2002). The nonconsiousness of consciousness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 406–424.
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