What Is Priming Psychology And What Is It Used For?

By Nicola Kirkpatrick

Updated November 20, 2019

Reviewer Avia James

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Priming is a technique used in cognitive psychology that conditions responses by exposure to the specific stimulus. In theory, exposure to one stimulus will influence response to subsequent stimulus unconsciously, without guidance. This technique works for cognitive and behavioral response times; and this may be an excellent study aid, especially for learning and retaining math skills.

There are many different types of priming, but it all boils down to associations and how our brains use association unconsciously. Word association games use the principle of priming; the shoe is to foot like the hat is to head. When one word, image, sound, or any other stimulus elicits an associated response, priming is at play. For instance, the words tiger and cat are associated, they are both feline, but priming can also elicit a different response for tiger depending on the priming before the word tiger, or an image of a tiger is introduced.

Priming taps into how our brains process, store, and recall information. Some research shows that priming is an adaptive ability that improves cognitive speed and function; cognitive speed and function increases the ability to problem solve and control unwanted behaviors.

Again, there are many associations possible for any given stimulus; the stimulus dog can elicit a response of walk, puppy, wolf, spot, the adaptive nature of priming is revealing another way the brain is wired to react.

Types Of Priming In Psychology

There are several different types of priming in psychology; each one has its specific points. The following is a list of the types of priming in psychology:

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  • Repetition Priming
    • Repetition priming explains that when our brains experience a stimulus and response, the same response will be processed quicker each time the stimulus is experienced
  • Perceptual Priming
    • Perceptual priming is priming that relies on forms, the exact format of the stimulus, and the way in which the stimulus is introduced (priming that occurs according to perception of the stimulus' relation to the prime)
  • Conceptual Priming
    • Conceptual priming is priming that is produced based on categories, the meaning of the stimulus and semantic tasks reinforce the priming (priming that occurs according to how the concept of the stimulus is related to the prime)
  • Positive and Negative Priming
    • Positive priming speeds up the reaction time between the stimulus and the response, whereas negative priming slows the reaction time between the stimulus and the response, repetition increases positive priming and ignoring the stimulus produces negative or slower responses
  • Associative Priming
    • Associative priming speeds up response time or processing time; the brain is faster at responding to stimulus when the items or words are usually associated or used together
  • Semantic Priming
    • Semantic priming is shown when the items or words are associated logically or related linguistically
  • Response Priming
    • Response priming explains priming that occurs when the stimulus is used to produce a motor effect, the speed of the stimulus is increased and the motor effect response increases, following which an alternative motor effect is introduced, and the error rate goes up
  • Masked Priming
    • The prime is masked using hash marks or another form of masking, yet the response is still elicited unconsciously regardless of the mask
  • Kindness Priming
    • Kindness priming is shown when an act of kindness produces happiness, and the happiness is unaffected by negative stimuli

Uses For Priming Psychology

Although priming may be a great study aid for math quizzes, the most common use for priming in psychology is to study/research memory and the brain. How the brain stores information, how it retrieves it, and how it perceives it, is studied and researched using priming. Priming has provided interesting information on Alzheimer's disease, and it has helped researchers understand which areas of the brain are affected by Alzheimer's.

Priming is also a huge component in advertising; repetition and association play a major part in how advertisers construct their campaigns. It is even used in politics, anywhere, anytime, the opinion must be swayed, priming is playing a part. It seems as though the human brain is wired for priming and when it comes to public opinion, a few well-placed associations, the right colors, and some repetition will sell just about anything.

Research, advertising, and swaying public opinion are the main uses for priming, but there are many uses for using priming personally like a personal trainers do when they push you to do better or challenge yourself. Priming can sharpen memory skills, social skills, and increase career achievement and there are plenty of self-help books out there doing just that.

When we use mantras to inspire or smile more and feel happier all day. There are many uses for priming in psychology, from couples counseling to psychotherapy, priming is used. Each time a stimulus produces an unconscious response, priming is at work.

Therapy And Priming

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Talk therapy is essentially a type of priming, the therapist listens, and primes/stimulates positive thoughts and ideas on how to deal with a problem. Priming is understood as a specific tool used to elicit responses that are then studied for psychological research, but it is also a way to understand the way the brain associates and adapts.

Positive priming produces positive feelings and responses, all types of therapy, including psychotherapy, engage in priming. Stress, depression, and many other types of problems can be addressed through priming. Priming occurs when a client begins to associate therapy sessions with stress relief; sometimes stress is lowered just thinking about a therapy session. There are many instances of priming in psychology, and it all takes place unconsciously.

A good example of priming is the mantras sometimes used in yoga. The mantra is the stimulus that precedes the positive feelings associated with yoga. The mantras are meant to elicit good feelings and stress relief, and they prime the practitioner for the positivity. Using positive quotes to reinforce positive behavior priming is part of the process. Each time the quote is repeated the stimulus for positive thoughts works to recall positive associations that have been made before and/or when the quote was read.

Another use of priming in psychology is exposure therapy. Priming related to exposure therapy occurs when the individual is exposed to something that causes distress. Once the individual is exposed to the distressing thing and they realize they can face their fear, they are primed to face the fear in the future. Repeated exposure and therapy reinforce this, but priming is part of the process.

In all types of therapy, the main goal of the therapist is to provide the client with positive ways of dealing with their problems, no matter what those problems are. Priming is part of that therapy because each time the stimulus of therapy occurs, and a positive experience is achieved, priming is in place for future positive experiences. Priming is used to replace negative emotions and thoughts with positive ones, empowering individuals to make positive changes in their lives; this is particularly helpful for those recovering from addiction and receiving therapy.

Addiction is more than a habit, but the therapy and counseling received can be just as important as the medical support required to beat the addiction. Both positive and negative priming are used in therapy for addictions. Negative priming is used to change the positive association an individual may have regarding their addiction, and positive priming is used to provide positive associations for a life in recovery from addiction. Recovering from addiction requires life changes, and in psychology, priming plays a big role in the psychotherapy related to addiction recovery.

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Priming And Memory Training

The technique of priming in psychology is often used for training the memory in positive and negative ways. For instance, negative priming can be used to help individuals form negative associations with habits they want to change. Negative priming is not about creating negative emotions; it is about slowing positive responses to stimulus; by slowing the positive response an individual experiences when engaging in their habit, the habit can be broken.

Positive priming can be used to prime for positive associations when working through phobias, or to help control compulsive behaviors. Exposure therapy is often used for helping individuals with phobias overcome their fear. Exposure therapy helps to replace negative associations with neutral or positive ones, and priming is part of the process. Positive priming can also be used to introduce a positive reaction to a specific stimulus that produces compulsive behaviors.

Memory can be primed for many associations, and this can provide an extra boost to academic skills. Research has shown that repetition and association increase a student's ability to recall all types of information. Creating associations using rhythm or rhyme is one technique that has been used to educate children since education first began; think about how the ABC's! Songs can prime the memory to recall everything from a first kiss to learning to drive, and those memories tend to resurface whenever that song is heard.

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