Priming is the process by which perception (or experience) of an item (or person or event) leads to an increase in its accessibility and the accessibility of related material and behaviors. Priming is a phenomenon that is enormously influential in people’s everyday lives, yet people are typically unaware of its operation and impact. For example, if you pass a telephone and it reminds you to call your mother, priming is at work. If middle-aged women make you feel nervous after watching Desperate Housewives, once again priming can be blamed. Priming is particularly important in social psychology because of the inherent complexity of social information processing— when many interpretations and behavioral options are available, the accessibility determined by priming can constrain perception, cognition, and action.
How Does Priming Work?
Psychologists’ understanding of priming is based on the idea that information is stored in units (schemas) in long-term memory, whose activation levels can be increased or decreased. When the activation of a schema is increased, it becomes more accessible— that is, more likely to enter consciousness or direct behavior. Priming research has capitalized on the connectionist idea that when schemas are frequently activated together, connections form between them, thereby creating networks in the mind. Activation can spread through these networks such that following activation of one schema, the activation of associated schemas in the network is also increased. This is a very useful tool because it helps prepare the mind for what it is likely to encounter next, or may have to think about very soon. When a cat is perceived, for instance, the “cat” schema will be activated, and activation will spread to cat-related concepts such as “cat’s meow” and “cat’s scratch.” This activation means that potentially important information is then more accessible, enabling people to behave toward the cat in an appropriate manner.
Empirically, this priming process would not be investigated by watching a perceiver’s behavior toward the cat, but by testing the accessibility of the relevant schema using techniques such as word recognition or lexical decision tasks. For example, research has shown that reading the word bread will prime associated items such as butter, but not unrelated items such as bikini. Experiments of this kind confirm that priming does indeed increase the activation of associated schemas.
Types of Priming
At its simplest level, priming can apply to a single word: Reading a word once will increase the speed at which that same word will subsequently be recognized. This effect is known as repetition priming and occurs because once a schema has been activated, it takes less energy to reactivate the construct on a subsequent occasion. Furthermore, if a schema is frequently activated, it can become hyperaccessible, and the rate at which it decreases its activation is reduced. This pattern is optimal because it keeps schemas that are encountered frequently activated for longer, so that they are more easily accessible if required again.
Priming is known as associative when it increases the activation of associated knowledge, such as “bacon” priming “eggs.” This effect can be subcategorized according to the type of association through which the activation has spread, such as through shared perceptual components, phonological features, or semantic relations. An example of perceptual priming would be a facilitated response to the word lost following presentation of the word most. These two words are orthographically similar, although they do not sound the same or have similar meanings. Phonological priming might occur between the words foul and trowel because they rhyme even though they do not share perceptual or semantic qualities. Priming between words that belong to the same semantic category is semantic priming, such as between baby and diaper or leaf and flower.
Semantic priming is the type most often studied in social psychology because it allows researchers to investigate semantic links between schemas. For example, stereotyping research has shown that people respond more quickly to words such as warm and caring after being shown stereotypic pictures of women than men. This suggests that people have developed associations between women and these traits, associations that are stored in semantic memory.
An important subtype of semantic priming is affective priming—the increase in activation of words of the same valence (i.e., positive or negative) as the prime. This phenomenon is elicited primarily when priming stimuli are presented for very short periods, so for example, if a smiling man is presented for a short duration, positive traits will be primed more than with masculine traits. The existence of affective priming suggests that valence is elicited from stimuli before priming spreads through more complex semantic associations, indicating the fundamental importance of this quality.
The effects described earlier all concern facilitation effects: increased activation of concepts related to a prime. However, in some cases priming can actually decrease the activation of particular schema, spreading inhibition rather than activation. This effect may arise from the way the brain deals with schema that are competing for attention. For example, making coffee might prime the milk and sugar schemas, but it is not physically practical for both to appear simultaneously in behavior. The solution is for whichever concept is primary (most highly activated) to decrease or laterally inhibit the activation of the competing schema. Stereotyping research has provided examples of this effect, demonstrating negative priming when a target person belongs to two stereotypic categories containing competing information. For example, a person might belong to the category “mother,” priming traits such as caring and unselfish, but also be a member of the “lawyer” category, perhaps priming opposite traits. To interact effectively with this person, the perceiver has to make a judgment about which traits to expect. If the “mother” stereotype is more highly activated (by contextual cues), then the lawyer stereotype will be inhibited. As with facilitation effects, therefore, negative priming can achieve useful and preparative ends.
Consequences of Priming
As the stereotyping examples suggest, priming is not just a cognitive phenomenon; its importance stems from the consequences that it has for people’s thoughts, behaviors, and interactions with others.
Priming can influence the way in which people perceive others and interpret their behavior, even without awareness of the prime. For example, after subliminal priming with aggressive words like hostile, participants are more likely to rate ambiguous behaviors (such as a playful shove) as being aggressive. In this case, participants’ social perception has been altered by the increased accessibility of aggressive traits, without them being aware of the priming experience. Priming social categories has a similar effect as priming individual traits because it increases the activation of all the traits contained within the category network. For example, presenting either the stereotype label “vegetarian” or “murderer” before asking participants to form an impression of a target person is likely to produce different impressions—the former presumably less brutal than the latter.
The phenomenon of increased accessibility altering perception is well-established. However, more contentious research suggests that even complex social behaviors can be primed and produced in behavior without perceivers’ awareness, a phenomenon referred to as the perception-behavior link. For example, participants who sit near a gun while giving electric shocks in an experiment show more aggression than those who are not near a weapon—the so-called weapons effect. Participants who have been primed with behavioral characteristics like “polite” or “rude” are more likely to behave in line with these traits in subsequent tasks. Again, this priming can be category based, so for example, priming with the “accountant” stereotype can increase conformity because this trait is contained within the occupational stereotype. Importantly, behavioral consequences of priming are elicited in situations that offer a relevant context for the behavior to be produced. If participants have been primed with aggression, they are unlikely to randomly produce aggressive acts. Rather, if they are put in a situation in which they perceive a potentially aggressive incident or are forced to choose to behave with high or low aggression, then the priming is likely to be influential. This may be why people are so often unaware of the influence of priming: It does not change the availability of thoughts or actions but, rather, alters the accessibility of the available options.
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