Priming in Sports

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.

Prime Exposure

Subliminal Priming

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

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.

Priming Effects

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.


  1. Ashford, K. J., & Jackson, R. C. (2010). Priming as means of preventing skill failure under pressure. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 32, 518–536.
  2. Banting, L. K., Dimmock, J. A., & Grove, J. R. (2011). The impact of automatically activated motivation on exercise-related outcomes Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 33, 569–585.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Srull, T. K., & Wyer, R. S. (1979). The role of category accessibility in the interpretation of information about persons: Some determinants and implications. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 10, 1660–1672.

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