Priming and the Psychology of Memory

In psychology, priming is a technique in which the introduction of one stimulus influences how people respond to a subsequent stimulus. Priming works by activating an association or representation in memory just before another stimulus or task is introduced. This phenomenon occurs without our conscious awareness, yet it can have a major impact on numerous aspects of our everyday lives.

Priming Psychology

There are many different examples of how this priming works. For example, exposing someone to the word "yellow" will evoke a faster response to the word "banana" than it would to unrelated words like "television." Because yellow and banana are more closely linked in memory, people respond faster when the second word is presented.

Priming can work with stimuli that are related in a variety of ways. For example, priming effects can occur with perceptually, linguistically, or conceptually related stimuli. Priming can have promising real-world applications as a learning and study aid as well.

Priming is named a such to evoke the imagery of a water well being primed. Once the well has been primed, water can then be subsequently produced whenever it is turned on. Once information has been primed in memory, it can be retrieved into awareness more readily.

Types of Priming

There are several different types of priming in psychology. Each one works in a specific way and may have different effects.

  • Positive and negative priming describe how priming influences processing speed. Positive priming makes processing faster and speeds up memory retrieval, while negative priming slows it down.
  • Semantic priming involves words that are associated in a logical or linguistic way. The earlier example of responding to the word "banana" more rapidly after being primed with the word "yellow" is an example of semantic priming.
  • Associative priming involves using two stimuli that are normally associated with one another. For example, "cat" and "mouse" are two words that are often linked with one another in memory, so the appearance of one of the words can prime the subject to respond more rapidly when the second word appears.
  • Repetition priming occurs when a stimulus and response are repeatedly paired. Because of this, subjects become more likely to respond in a certain way more quickly each time the stimulus appears.
  • Perceptual priming involves stimuli that have similar forms. For example, the word "goat" will evoke a faster response when it is preceded by the word "boat" because the two words are perceptually similar.
  • Conceptual priming involves a stimulus and response that are conceptually related. Words such as "desk" and "chair" are likely to show priming effects because they are in the same conceptual category.
  • Masked priming involves part of the initial stimulus being obscured in some way, such as with hash marks. Even though the entire stimulus is not visible, it still evokes a response. Words in which certain letters are obscured are one example of masked priming.

How Does Priming Work?

Psychologists believe that units (or schemas) of information are stored in long-term memory. The activation of these schemas can either be increased or decreased in a variety of ways. When the activation of certain units of information is increased, these memories become easier to access. When activation is decreased, the information becomes less likely to be retrieved from memory.

Priming suggests that certain schemas tend to be activated in unison. By activating some units of information, related or connected units also become active.

So why would it be useful for related schemas to become activated and more accessible? In many instances, being able to draw related information into memory more quickly might help people respond faster when the need arises.

For example, schemas related to rainstorms and slick roads may be linked closely in memory. When you see that it is raining, memories about possible slick road conditions may also come to mind as well. Because your mind has been primed to think of this information, you might be better able to think quickly and react rapidly when you encounter a dangerous, wet stretch of road on your drive home from work.

Examples of Priming in Action

Priming has been observed in a variety of ways in psychology research labs, but what impact does it really have in the real world?

Priming Can Influence How You Perceive the World

The recent Yanny/Laurel viral phenomenon is one example of how priming can influence how you perceive information. An ambiguous sound sample was uploaded by an online user with a poll asking what people heard. Some people distinctly heard "Yanny," while others clearly heard "Laurel." Some people even reported being able to switch back and forth between which words they heard.

Due to the aural ambiguity, psychologists suggest that people rely on priming effects to help determine what they are more likely to hear. Research suggests that we do not hear by analyzing the frequencies of the noises that enter our ears and then determining the words that these frequencies form. Instead, we utilize what is known as top-down processing. Our brains first recognize some sounds as speech. Then, our brains utilize context cues to interpret the meaning of these speech sounds.

Top-Down Processing and Perception

This can help explain why people often misinterpret song lyrics. When the sound is ambiguous, your brain fills in the missing information as best it can. Priming effects can then come into play. If you are primed to interpret a lyric in a particular way, you will be more likely to hear it in a certain way based upon that priming.

When it comes to hearing either Yanny or Laurel, just being aware of the nature of the viral audio clip primes you to hear it as one or the other. The fact that people who heard the clip were already expecting to hear either Yanny or Laurel primed them to hear either of those two words, and not some other word entirely.

In this case, factors related to sound quality and hearing ability also played a role. Younger people with less age-related hearing damage were more likely to hear to hear "Yanny" because their ears are better able to detect higher frequency sounds. Those who heard Laurel tended to only hear lower-frequency sounds.

Priming Can Influence Your Behavior in Subtle Ways

In one study, researchers implicitly primed participants with words commonly associated with stereotypes about elderly people. Upon leaving the testing booth, people who had been primed with words related to older adults were more likely to walk more slowly than participants who had not been primed.

One study published in the journal Aging and Mental Health found that priming participants with negative aging stereotypes resulted in more negative effects on behaviors and self-rated evaluations. Priming participants with these negative aging stereotypes led to increased feelings of loneliness and an increased frequency in help-seeking.

In other words, bringing to mind stereotypes about elderly people being lonely and helpless actually led to people feeling lonelier and acting more helpless. Researchers suggest that being exposed to such age-related stereotypes may lead to increased dependency and lower self-evaluations of ability and functioning in older people.

Priming Can Be Used to as an Educational Tool

Teachers and educators can also utilize priming as a learning tool. Some students perform better when they know what they can expect. Tackling new material can sometimes be intimidating, but priming students by presenting information before a lesson is given can help.

Priming is often used as an educational intervention for students with certain learning disabilities. New material is presented before it is taught, allowing the student to become comfortable with it. For example, students might be allowed to "preview" the books or materials that are going to be used as part of a lesson. Because they are already familiar with the information and materials, they may be better able to pay attention during the actual lesson.

A Word From Verywell

While priming takes place outside of conscious awareness, this psychological phenomenon can play an important role in your daily life. From influencing how you interpret information to affecting your behavior, priming can play a part in your perceptions, emotions, and actions.

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Article Sources
  • Coudin, G & Alexopoulos, T. 'Help me! I'm old!' How negative aging stereotypes create dependency among older adults. Aging & Mental Health. 2010;14(5):516-523. DOI: 10.1080/13607861003713182.

  • Davis, MH & Johnsrude, IS. Hearing speech sounds: Top-down influences on the interface between audition and speech perception. Hearing Research. 2007;229:132-147. DOI: 10.1016/j.heares.2007.01.014.