Let’s live out this hypothetical situation where we’re friends. On a random Wednesday evening, we’re having some quality time and I ask you what your favorite color is, it’s the initial years of our friendship of course.
You reply with “Blue”. Good choice. After a few hours, we’re picking out fruits from a fruit salad we bought. You’ll be noticing the divine blueberries before all the other fruits. The words “blue” and “blueberries” are very closely linked in your brain. Even if your favorite fruit is banana (questionable taste but to each their own).
The phenomenon occurring above is what is priming in psychology. Priming, in general, helps us to comprehend information faster.
1. What is Priming in Psychology
To answer the question, what is priming in psychology, priming is defined loosely as the response that one gives to a stimulus, after being introduced to a closely related stimulus before. One stimulus can influence the decision you make regarding the subsequent stimulus, but all this will occur subconsciously, you aren’t consciously aware of this cognitive process between both stimuli, i.e. all occur without our conscious awareness. We aren’t aware of when or how we’re being primed.
The classic example of priming research that is now under some scrutiny is the study performed by Bragh et al. In 1996, the researchers had three groups of participants-
- Rude Condition– This group was assigned to unscramble some rude words such as aggressive, bold, etc.
- Polite Condition– This group was assigned to unscramble polite words such as respect, respectful, etc.
- Neutral Condition– This group was given words that were neutral words, neither negatively toned nor positively toned words.
After completing their unscrambling assignment, they were expected to go to the researcher down the hall and let them know they were done. Now, this researcher was engrossed in a discussion with his coworker. The experiment was performed to see which group would interrupt them the fastest. All of the participants had been primed in different ways. The aim was to study how that priming affects them.
The result- 60% of the Rude Condition, 40% of the Neutral Condition, and only 20% of the positive condition interrupted the researchers.
Another quick example of priming is that after coming across the word nurse you’ll recognize the word doctor faster than any other unrelated word such as pool.
The priming effect involves a positive (or sometimes negative) influence that a stimulus can have on the later response or just the behavior of the person. This effect involves various concepts like unconscious processing, semantic processing, etc.
2. Schemas in Psychology
Before diving into the world of priming, let us discuss schemas, a term you’ll come across often in this article.
Schemas are mental cognitive frameworks that are formed to form connections between pieces of information that we’ve retained about basically everything in our lives. While these help in accessing memories in our brains, they also affect us since we are more prone to form stereotypes and not accept information that does not fit into our pre-formed notions.
The idea of a schema was the brainchild of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. According to him, schemas include both knowledge as well as the process of acquiring new information throughout your life as you grow.
3. Types of Priming
Priming can be classified into many broad categories, some of which are listed below. Each method of priming works in a specific way.
3.1. Positive and Negative Priming
Positive priming is used to define a type of priming that results in increased processing speed (i.e. faster ability to do the task). After the initial stimulus appears, there is a formation of an association of information in your memory that when introduced to the second stimulus. Certain schemas in our minds are activated together. This also leads to the activation of related schemas. This leads to a faster response rate, hence this whole process is known as positive priming.
Negative Priming is more of a mystery to us. We know it reduces our information processing abilities. Two popular hypotheses on how it works are-
- Distractor Inhibition– Like how you ignore your boss/teacher when you cross paths with them on weekends in public places, the brain chooses to ignore the initial stimuli similarly. Of course, more discreetly. So the ignored stimulus isn’t activated and inhibited by the brain.
- Episodic Retrieval Model– Like the naysayers just trying to rile everyone up, in everyday life, the brain just ignores the first stimulus by labeling it as ‘do-not-respond’. Then, after a while when the brain tries to connect this information, there’s some confusion and it takes some time to clear this out, hence the delayed response. Through psychological research methods, this is how negative priming occurs.
3.2. Masked Priming
The Masked priming paradigm was initially developed by Kenneth I. Forster and Davis. Its referred to as the sandwich technique since the ‘Prime’ is sandwiched between the “Forward Mask” and the “Target“. It sounds more complicated than it is.
The prime word is ‘masked’ by symbols such as hashtags, hiding what the word is. The prime is presented for less than 80 ms. This short time duration enables the masking priming effect to be a good tool to study automatic visual word recognition.
Forster has also put forth an argument stating that masked priming is one of the purer forms of priming since there is absolutely no conscious awareness of the relationship between the prime and the target.
For more on this, check out this page with an illustrated example.
3.3. Perceptual Priming
This type of priming is based on similar forms of the first and the second stimuli. One example of this is the word ‘fight’ will influence a faster response when near the word ‘sight’, since these two words are perceptually similar even though their meanings are nowhere close.
3.4. Conceptual Priming
The stimuli exist in the same realm as each other in this case. For example, the two words ‘kitchen’ and ‘stove’ will have conceptual priming effects on each other since they’re connected, functionally.
3.5. Semantic Priming
Semantic, according to the Internet, means ‘relating to meaning in language or logic‘. Semantic words, as the meaning, suggests related the prime and target that are alike in a logical or linguistic way. An example of this is the word ‘cat‘ being a semantic prime for ‘lion’ because a lion is just a big cat. These animals are very similar. Hence, when semantic priming occurs, the prime and target belong to the same category of objects and share similarities. Morphemes are also included as primes. For example, ‘physio‘ can be prime for ‘physiology‘.
3.5.1. Why Does Semantic Priming Work?
Our brain contains networks of all the information we’ve retained, or at least tried to. Each word or piece of information is connected to another part of memory that seems to be related to it in some way. The memory palace (creating a palace in your brain of your memories and linking them based on similar spatial environments to help in memory retrieval on exposure to different factors) is an invigorating read if you want to dive deeper into this.
But I digress, the semantic priming effect occurs due to the activation of this network. When you think of one word, this word can influence the connection between similar words (either in meaning or sound) in the brain. Some parts of the information store you have in your brain are activated that in turn activates some more related or connected units. It is a continuous process.
3.6. Associative Priming
In this effect, there is a greater chance that the target and prime occur together, but aren’t necessarily similar in the semantic sense. For example, the two stimuli like ‘sticks’ and ‘stones’ are associative primes since are related or connected units and are also mentioned together in general phrases such as “sticks and stones may break my bones…”.
A similar effect appears to occur when one sees the example of the phrase “salt and pepper”. They’ll be much more likely to think of “pepper” when they see the word “salt”.
3.7. Response Priming
The response priming effect is when you react to a stimulus very quickly and as accurately as you can. In this, the target is present very soon after the prime, usually between a gap of 100 milliseconds.
This type of priming is independent of the visual perception of the prime. In an experiment conducted by Fehrer and Raab in 1962, they concluded that the response time was independent of the visibility of the target/prime.
3.8. Kindness Priming
Let’s assume someone gives you a free food coupon for your favorite restaurant. That’s an example of kind behavior on the strangers’ behalf and your day is made. This act of kindness will function as the prime and the effect it’ll have on you is that you’ll be more likely to notice other acts of kindness around you in your daily life.
Also, kindness priming temporarily improves the person’s (who’s been primed) resilience to cope with a crisis.
3.9. Affective Priming
Imagine that I show you pictures of empty roads after showing you pictures of beautiful fields of flowers. Then, I show you pictures of gory crime scenes and finally the empty roads again.
The empty roads may have seemed very underwhelming after those flower-filled fields but you perceived those same road photos to be pleasant to look at after seeing those crime scene photos.
Congratulations, this sort of behavior indicates that you’ve been primed. This is what affect priming effect is.
3.10. Repetition Priming
Either the same or similar stimuli are repeated and the response time or accuracy of the response is measured to observe how repetition priming positively affects the participant. The repetition priming effect happens when the person being primed, starts becoming very familiar with the pairing of the stimulus and the response.
3.11. Social Priming
The controversial one. This is the most interesting one since it also opens Pandora’s box about the reproducibility crisis that has plagued every psychology researcher’s world.
First, let’s deal with what social priming is, it was largely made popular by John Bargh who published a paper in 1996 stating that the social priming effect occurs when, for example, people are introduced to the stereotypes and words related to the elderly people. After being primed, the people who left the testing booth, walking speed subsequently decreased as compared to participants who hadn’t been primed at all.
So this paper by Bargh et al. was successful in the priming research area and cited by others many times. This popularity warranted an attempt to replicate this experiment and to get the same results. That, unfortunately, didn’t work out. Two unsuccessful direct replication attempts later, it was starting to become clear that maybe there was something awry in the method and literature of the paper by .
3.11.1 Replication Crisis
It is as fascinating as it sounds. Science is about performing experiments, right? Psychology too is a science. So, you think of something, design an experiment around that “something” and then after some setbacks and then some more setbacks, you get a result. After you’ve done this experiment and gotten a certain result, you end up telling the world about it. While many people will believe the work you have done, some will want to see for themselves if the work you’ve done is credible. So they replicate your experiment to see if they get the same results. If they do, good news. If not, tough luck.
Experimental psychology, for a while, has been suffering from the replicability crisis. Social psychology studies, particularly, have taken a major hit from this. Social psychology refers to how we and our thoughts, feelings, etc are affected by other people and society in general.
Many well-cited research papers are now under scrutiny due to failed replication attempts.
Here’s a video if you want to more about this.
3.12. Cultural Priming
This type of priming is usually applied in the fields of cross-culture psychology to understand how people comprehend events and how people of bi-cultures answer the question of the self-concept such as, “Who am I?”
In an interesting experiment performed by Hung and associates, different sets of multicultural images were shown to participants such as the U.S Capitol Building and a Chinese Temple, then they were made to watch a video of one fish swimming ahead of a school of fish. The Hong Kong participants chose to focus on the more collectivist way whereas their counterparts focused more on the individual fish.
This is said to be the opposite of repetition priming. It includes the measurable impairment when two pieces of information are processed in close time intervals of each other and hence they overlap and compete.
But its existence is not completely proven since one study failed to prove anti-priming effects in a picture naming task.
4. Brain Injuries and Priming Effects
Priming occurs due to, and in our brains. So, it’s only natural for priming effects to be affected when our brain is injured in any way.
In cases of patients suffering from amnesia, i.e. memory loss due to brain damage or disease, they performed perceptual priming tasks as well as healthy patients. However, they had some difficulties in completing conceptual priming tasks.
Patients with Alzheimer’s disease exhibit decreases priming effects on various tasks such as word-stem completion. But they performed normally in lexical decision tasks.
5. Priming Effects All Around Us
In today’s 24/7 exposure to everything and everyone, from social cues to subtly dropped hints in advertisements, each type of information can influence our behavior.
While this effect has been and is being studied extensively in psychology, priming as a concept is also widely used in media and marketing. By making you think a certain way through thought-out stimuli, people can offer you products. The decision we make regarding a certain product is being influenced by the sellers and in this way, priming has reached everyday life.
Priming can be used by the worst of our lot too. Abusers and groomers often use priming effects on their victims. First, they’ll try to desensitize their victim with “harmless” touching. So, when this harmless touching, unfortunately, escalates to physical abuse of any kind, the victim doesn’t think of it that way. The abuser may even go as far as trying to prime the victim’s family.
Priming in meditation is visible. All those affirmations and quotes motivate you to think positively and relieve stress. Additionally, repetition of these positive words concretizes your belief in them.
Priming can also be used for kids with certain learning disabilities. For example, the study materials can be given to them before so they can go through them and this can help them pay more attention and understand better in class.
6. Priming Effects in Therapy
According to a study in which a mental health professional worked with children who had “negative interpretation bias” which means they thought of things primarily with negative undertones. When the mental health professional used positive words to sort of neutralize the negative thoughts of the children, it reduced signs of anxiety in them.
Exposure to positive stimuli helpfully affected the children. In this way, priming was used to bring about positive changes in the thought process of those who need positive reinforcements.
7. The Laurel and Yanny Phenomenon
It’s 2018 and you’re scrolling Instagram when you come across a video in which a sound sample has a word being said in it, it’s either “Laurel” or “Yanny”.
You either heard one of those names or swung back and forth between both names (P.S. it was obviously Laurel). When on exposure to a new song, your brain tries to fill in the blanks of the missing information to the best of its capabilities and hence you usually sing nonsensical lyrics.
According to what research suggests, apart from relying on our hearing ability, people tend to rely on priming effects to determine what sound they’re more likely to hear. When people heard the viral clip first, they were already expecting to hear one of those names. Hence they were already primed to hear either one.
Through this article, we’ve seen how priming works and various priming examples. To think that something as simple as letters stringed together into words could affect our cognitive process and alter the way we make decisions is absolutely mind-boggling. One stimulus influences so many things, it is like a cascade of events.
To accept the idea of priming, we also need to accept the need to improve the experimental psychology side of it. Sure, the idea of priming effects seems to be plausible. But for it to be credible, we need more experimental designs that can overcome the replicability crisis.
Priming can hence be used in positive ways, in therapy and in cases of recovering addicts.
For more information about psychology as a science, check out this article.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q1. What is meant by priming in psychology?
Priming, in cognitive psychology, suggests that certain words and stimuli have the power to influence behavior changes in people after they’ve been introduced to said words. A person is said to have ‘primed’. The priming effect occurs when, on exposure to the stimulus, we are subconsciously affected by it.
Q2. What is a priming example?
An example of the priming effect in psychology is by making people walk slowly by priming them via words describing slow speed such as leisurely, slowly, etc. The priming effect is present in abundance in our everyday life. We are influenced by the things we watch and hear.
Q3. What is an example of brain priming?
The answer to this seems to be the same as the first question which is, what is priming? To elaborate, there are different types of priming such as positive and negative priming, semantic priming, associative priming, etc. All of this occurs in the absence of our conscious awareness.
More examples of priming include listening to a new song and misinterpreting the lyrics because you’ve been primed to hear certain words which are not necessarily the right ones.
Q4. What does priming mean in memory?
According to psychologists, our memory is divided into schemas related to all the things we’ve stored in our brains. Certain schemas are activated or positively affected by being introduced to some words and hence these become easily accessible memories. While others are not activated or negatively affected leading to a slower response rate.
Also read: Interesting Facts about the Nervous System