What is Priming? 


The priming effect is when the introduction of one stimulus impacts how people respond to subsequent stimulus. L. L. Jacoby provides the definition as an increased sensitivity to certain stimuli due to prior experience.

Cognitive psychologists suggest priming activates an association in our memories rapidly, before the next stimulus is introduced. It is an unconscious process in which implicit memories shape one’s behavior without realizing it.  Not knowing your choices are being manipulated through environmental dynamics is a critical feature.

Almost everything will trigger associations in our brain; smells remind us of certain foods, whistle sounds remind us of practice, calculators remind us of math class, etc.  While having prior  learning and experience with the stimuli can change your behavior, if you do not have familiarity, it should not change your response.

We develop schemas or mental models to help us interpret events and these filters automatically process and translate experiences. Since this occurs without our conscious awareness, it is worth understanding it in more detail.

Types of priming:

  • Semantic priming: words that are associated in a logical or linguistic way such as: responding to the word “sun” more quickly after being primed with the word “yellow.”
  • Perceptual priming: stimuli that are similar in form such as the words tin and win.
  • Conceptual priming: Stimulus and response that are conceptually related such as ball and bat.
  • Associative priming: Stimuli that are associated such as: “peanut butter” and “jelly.”

Examples of priming: 

Priming is commonly researched in studies evaluating memory and cognitive functioning, which reveal useful data about how the brain stores and retrieves data.

  • Positive priming increases memory processing speed and negative priming can decrease undesired behaviors by slowing down the processing.
  • Advertisers and marketers leverage priming by introducing familiar smells, experiences, or items leading to quick decisions, before we evaluate more rationally.
  • Priming can be used as a study aid. By creating associations with words through rhyming or songs, students recall the material more readily.
  • Priming is used for self development. In meditation, repeated mantras can auto trigger a relaxation response due to the previous experience with the mantra and feeling calm.

In Malcom Gladwell’s book, Blink, he describes the following experiment to display the power of priming:

“Two Dutch researchers did a study in which they had groups of students answer forty-two fairly demanding questions from the board game Trivial Pursuit. Half were asked to take five minutes beforehand to think about what it would mean to be a professor and write down everything that came to mind. Those students got 55.6 percent of the questions right. The other half were asked to first sit and think about soccer hooligans. They ended up getting 42.6 percent of the Trivial Pursuit questions right. The ‘professor’ group didn’t know more than the ‘soccer hooligan’ group. They weren’t smarter or more focused or more serious. They were simply in a ‘smart’ frame of mind…”.

Subsequent studies have supported how thoughts alter subsequent behaviors. If test subjects are asked to read a series of words related to being elderly (senile, retire, old), when they leave the room they will walk more slowly than when they arrived. If words related to aggressiveness (irritate, interrupt, rude) are provided, they will be quicker to interrupt in conversation even after they believe the experiment to be over.

Is priming good or bad?

Priming is an automatic cognitive process that a feature of our brain’s operating system.  Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Researchers Klein et al (2002) introduced an adaptive framework for priming, describing it as a search function that predicts what information will be needed in the future based on the current state.  There are benefits of such efficient processing such as when faced with dangerous situations that require quick reaction time, such as navigating through treacherous weather.

Priming in and of itself is neutral, depending on how it is being used and the intentions of those leveraging.  We can’t avoid it, but by gaining understanding and appreciating how it works, we can be aware of how it can negatively influence us or how we can use it for our benefit.