Automaticity: Evaluative Priming

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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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