What is Priming Psychology and How Does it Affect Us in Life

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated July 22, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Aaron Horn, LMFT

There are many concepts of priming that are used in everyday life. For instance, before painting something, you might prime it or prepare it. (Applying a primer coat before the paint itself prepares the surface.) Similarly, old-fashioned books that taught very young students early reading skills are called primers. They prepared students to read at higher levels. In psychology, the concept of priming also has to do with preparation. Priming can mean preparing the brain or a memory to recall a certain event and then to react to in a predictable way.

The word “stimulus” is often used in psychology. The study of a stimulus or of stimuli and how and when people respond to them is quite common. Priming is a concept that involves stimuli. A theory of priming is that when someone is exposed to a certain stimulus, it can affect how they react to the stimulus (or to a similar stimulus)later on. Through priming, the memory of the stimulus and the reaction or behavior may become more accessible or happen more easily. Exposure to stimuli may facilitate, or prime, actions.

What Is Priming Psychology?

Priming psychology is not a type of psychology in an official way, but the concept of priming is related to psychology and is often used in psychological studies. A simple example of priming is the following: A dollar bill is dropped by a stop sign. A child finds the money near a stop sign. Later on, they may think to look for a dollar bill by that stop sign or whenever they see a stop sign. Even though that dollar bill could have been dropped anywhere, the child looks for the money at stop signsalmost as if a stop sign can attract dollar bills. This might be priming at work. The theory is that priming can make a concept accessible in the memory so that it can be readily used when interacting with similar objects later. There are various types of priming related to psychology.

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Semantic Priming

To understand semantic priming, try to picture the phrase “peanut butter and jelly.” Semantic priming is the concept that a response to a target, word, or symbol—such as the word “jelly”—is faster when a semantically related prime—such as the phrase “peanut butter”—comes before it, as opposed to a prime that is not semantically related (such as the word “cheese”). For instance, if a person says “peanut butter,” you might think or say “jelly” more readily than if the person says “cheese.” But if a person said “cheese,” you might think of the word “cracker.” This concept may be relevant to the concept of learning and working memory.

Associative Priming

In associative priming, a concept or behavior may be more readily recalled because it is associated with related concept. An example is hearing “tea” and “coffee.” The associated concepts may make you quickly think of drinks, for instance.

Repetition Priming

The concept of repetition priming is that stimulus repetition leads to improved behavioral responses. For instance, if you repeatedly encounter something in the environment, you might become more efficient in identifying it. For instance, if you heard an unusual sound one morning, you might not recognize it right away. But after encountering the sound a number of times, you might recognize quite effortlessly as, for instance, coming from a neighbor’s car with a broken muffler or from a bird that appears near the window each morning.

Perceptual Priming

Perceptual priming refers to a stimulus and a response that have similar forms. For instance, if a person is given an orange and is asked to pick a similar fruit, they might respond by picking an apple because it is also round.

Conceptual Priming

With conceptual priming, a stimulus and a response may be conceptually related. The response may occur more quickly because it is conceptually related to the prime. For instance, a door and a window might be conceptually paired together.

Priming in Media, Politics, and Marketing

Priming is a concept that is used in not only in psychology, but also in communication and media studies, in political science, and in marketing and advertisingPrimes in these areas may act as subtle cues or stimuli that impact people’s attitudes and responses. Their decision-making may also be affected by priming, even though they might not be fully conscious of how they arrived at the decision. The primes may influence whether people buy a product they saw in an advertisement or which candidate they decide to vote for, for instance.

Priming and Grooming in Cases of Sexual Abuse

Sexual abusers may use grooming behaviors to prime the behaviors of the person who is the target of their abuse. The grooming can be quite complex. For instance, an abuser might engage in gradual touching of a person in an effort to desensitize them to physical contact. In this case, behavior of not reacting strongly to “harmless” physical touch may be primed so that when physical touching escalates into that of a sexual nature, the reaction will remain the same.

An abusive person may also use grooming and priming to gain the trust of the person who is the target of abuse. The abuser may share secrets to prime the behavior of keeping secrets. That way, when the “secret” abuse takes place, the abuser hopes the person who experiences the abuse will repeat their behavior of maintaining secrecy.

An abusive person may even groom or try to prime the behaviors of the families of those they are abusing. For instance, they may act like they are being helpful or charming to gain trust in order to have greater access to the person they are intending to abuse.

If you or a loved one has experienced sexual violence, abuse, or assault, please seek help immediately. The National Sexual Assault Hotline is free, confidential, and is available 24/7 to help survivors. The phone number is 800-656-HOPE (4673). There is also an online chat option available on the RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network)website.

Priming and Stereotypes

Some research shows that priming may affect stereotyping and related behaviors. For instance, in one study, one group of participants was given words related to stereotypes of the elderly. An example of a word would be “retirement.” Another group of participants was given words that are considered unrelated to being elderly. Those who were given the first group of words actually walked more slowly (in way that is stereotypical of an elderly person) after receiving the elderly-related words. The concept of being elderly may have been activated in the first group, which may have reinforced their stereotypes of what it’s like to be elderly. The research suggests that not only was the stereotype activated, but the people’s actions began to reflect the stereotype. People primed with stereotypes or other exposures or ideas may begin to embody those ideas.

Priming for Good

Can priming be used to promote positive behaviors? In a study, two groups were given words to unscramble. One group received words associated with aggression. The other group was given words associated with patience and productivity. While waiting for their answers to be checked, the group that was given the “aggressive” words expressed and showed signs of greater frustration. The group who received the “patient” and “positive” words showed signs of less frustration. The groups’ perception of the words may have impacted their behavior.

Questioning the Validity of Priming

The results of some studies on priming were not able to be replicated or verified in follow-up or similar studies. Therefore, the validity of the concept of priming in the field of psychology has been questioned at times. However, the concept of priming may still be an interesting and helpful one from a practical perspective. For instance, if priming to act or think in positive ways can lead to better, more productive behavior and thought patterns, it might be a helpful practice for those wanting to engage in more positive ways of living and viewing the world. Reading positive words, for instance, may be uplifting and could even be a simple way of activating positive feelings.

Priming in Therapy

In therapy, a therapist and client may work together to achieve deliberate readiness for positive change. But when utilizing the concept of priming in therapy, activating change may not be quite so apparent or deliberate. Instead, passive, subtle, or unobtrusive activation of healthier mental representations by external stimuli may be used to bringing about healthy change. For instance, the regulation of negative emotions might be achieved through subtle exposure to things that make a person feel stronger, calmer, and supported, such as physical sensations, visual images, or semantic concepts (like positive words or concepts).

Priming may help with the management of anxiety when using a type of cognitive behavioral therapy called cognitive bias modification. For example, in one study, a licensed mental health professional worked with children who had what is termed “negative interpretation bias,” which means that they thought in negative terms. Priming with positive words and situations helped counteract the tendency to think negatively. With this therapeutic technique, children had significantly reduced symptoms of anxiety.

Seeking Help

Want To Learn More About The Role Of Priming In Your Everyday Life?

If you would like to change your stereotypes or biases or learn to have healthier thoughts, behaviors, feelings, or relationships—or if you or a loved one have any mental health concerns—please reach out for help. A therapist knows how the human mind works and can help you to live a better life by using your mind to your advantage. Licensed mental health professionals are available to connect with you virtually at BetterHelp. Working with an online therapist can have many practical advantages. It is affordable, accessible, and convenient. You can work with a therapist from any place you feel comfortable. Therapy can inspire positive change and help you find concrete tools to move forward in a healthy way.

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