Priming effects occur when the processing of a target stimulus is influenced by a preceding stimulus on the basis of a relationship between prime and target. Processing of the target word surgeon, for example, may be facilitated by the prime word injury. The priming effect in this example is based on associative and non-evaluative semantic relationships between prime and target, and is called semantic priming. Evaluative priming, on the other hand, focuses on evaluative (positive or negative) relationships between primes and targets. In an evaluative priming paradigm, a positive or negative target (delight) is preceded by a prime of the same valence (healthy) or of the opposite valence (failure).
Usually, participants in these reaction-time tasks are asked to decide whether the target denotes something positive or negative. Responses are typically faster and more accurate when the prime and target share the same valence (healthy delight). Thus, presentation of healthy as the prime is likely to automatically activate a positive evaluation. If the target word that is subsequently presented is also positive (delight), then the individual is likely to respond quickly and accurately to the adjective. If the target word is negative, however, response accuracy and speed are likely to be compromised. Consequently, evaluative priming effects are based on a significant interaction between the valence of the prime and the valence of the target.
Automatic Evaluation: A Consistent Finding
By using a short timeframe (called stimulus onset asynchrony) between the presentation of primes and targets, research on evaluative priming has found that evaluative information about stimuli is activated very quickly (automatically) upon presentation of the prime. Also, the evaluative priming effect has been replicated numerous times using a variety of experimental stimuli. The effect has emerged, for instance, when the primes consist of words, pictures, or odors. Moreover, the effects have been evidenced when the response task given to participants is to evaluate the target (“Is the target word positive or negative?”), when they are asked to pronounce the targets, or when they are required to generate a motor response task to the primes.
Compatibility Between Automatic Evaluation and Self-Report Evaluation
Traditionally, to gauge people’s evaluation of an object or concept, researchers have utilized self-report measures that invite conscious introspection among participants. One of the most significant benefits of evaluative priming studies, however, is that they allow researchers to tap fast evaluative processes that often occur without, and sometimes against, the respondents’ intentions. For research on socially sensitive topics, such as exercise and body image, significant differences might emerge between these automatic evaluations and self-report evaluations. Therefore, social stigmatization acts as a possible moderator to the relationship between self-report and automatic evaluations. Another possible moderator to this relationship is evaluation strength. In other words, people who possess strong automatic evaluations of concepts are also likely to report strong, compatible evaluations in self-report questions. If one has a strong passion for basketball, for example, the individual is likely to report congruent positive evaluations of the sport on both self-report measures and implicit measures.
Research on Consequences of Automatic Evaluation
There are two streams of literature on the consequences of automatic evaluation. One of these streams relates to the question of whether primed evaluations are predictive of approach or avoidance behaviors toward that stimulus. In other words, do automatic evaluations increase one’s tendency to behave in particular ways toward the priming stimulus? Research is now emerging to suggest that these evaluations can significantly influence one’s reactions toward the stimulus itself. Another stream of research focuses on the implications of a primed evaluation for the subsequent processing of unrelated stimuli. There is a possibility that interpretation of ambiguous stimuli can be guided by previous exposure to positively or negatively evaluated primes. In fact, past work has established that interpretation of words such as beat can be guided by strongly valenced primes, such that people are more likely to interpret the word as meaning rhythm after a positive prime and hit after a negative prime. Collectively, these findings suggest that one’s automatic evaluations of sport or exercise are likely to predict the individual’s approach or avoidance of these activities, as well as influence the interpretation of information about them. Someone who possesses a negative automatic evaluation of exercise, for instance, is likely to reject an offer to join an exercise class without giving much thought to the offer. Also, that person will be likely to bias any ambiguous information in an exercise advertisement (or other communication) in a negative manner.
Evaluative priming effects are most often discussed in terms of a spreading activation within a participant’s semantic network. According to the spreading activation hypothesis, priming success, for example, would make the concept of all positively valenced representations more accessible. These salient representations are then more readily used to encode subsequent information. Although the spreading activation account to evaluative priming has conceptual appeal, it has also been criticized by some scholars. One of the key criticisms has been that the spreading activation account is based on the fan effect. If a prime stimulus activates many concepts in memory (as it would in the context of evaluative priming), the amount of activation should disperse over many pathways, making the activation of any one representation quite minimal. Other mechanisms for evaluative priming have been forwarded, but more research is needed to establish which of them offer the best explanation for these effects.
- Bluemke, M., Brand, R., Schweizer, G., & Kahlert, D. (2010). Exercise might be good for me, but I don’t feel good about it: Do automatic associations predict exercise behavior? Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 32, 137–153.
- Ferguson, M. J., & Bargh, J. A. (2003). The constructive nature of automatic evaluation. In J. Musch & K. C. Klauer (Eds.), The psychology of evaluation: Affective processes in cognition and emotion (pp. 173–193). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Ferguson, M. J., Bargh, J. A., & Nayak, D. A. (2005). After-affects: How automatic evaluations influence the interpretation of subsequent, unrelated stimuli. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41, 182–191.