What’s Priming Psychology And What Is It Used For?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated April 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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Priming is a cognitive function that can have a significant impact on memory in several areas of life.

The American Psychological Association defines priming in psychology the following way: “in cognitive psychology, the effect in which recent experience of a stimulus facilitates or inhibits later processing of the same or a similar stimulus.” 

For instance, if you’re shown the color red and then shown a photo of different colored flowers, you may be more likely to notice the red flowers first. There can be many types of priming that occur in everyday life, such as repetition priming, semantic priming, and associative priming. Priming can be used not only in psychology but also in research, advertising, politics, meditation, and various mental health-related applications. You may find that it’s possible to use priming to your advantage by working with a licensed therapist, whether in person or online. 

One of the most common ways to study priming memory is to measure the reaction time differences in response to primed versus unprimed stimuli. 

What is priming?

Priming is thought to be one of the unconscious ways our memories work when we're identifying the words, objects, or tasks in a given situation. Priming generally refers to activating a specific part of the brain so that a person is more likely to recognize something in front of them. For example, you might prime someone to notice blueberries in a fruit basket by first showing them the color blue.

In general, when someone looks at a basket full of fruit, they might notice the brightly colored yellow bananas first, or maybe they'll see the apples if that's their favorite snack. However, showing that same person the color blue in advance (or priming them to notice things that are blue) may increase the likelihood that they'll notice the blueberries first. This typically happens because the concepts of "blue" and "blueberries" may be closely linked in our memories.

Learn how the priming effect can help you break bad habits

When a word, an image, a sound, or another stimulus influences or elicits an associated response, priming may be at play. If you need a strong study tool or a new therapy technique, you may want to learn more about this phenomenon.

Priming is a technique that can be used in cognitive psychology to condition responses through exposure to specific stimuli. It typically works with our unconscious responses to change our thought patterns and reactions by tapping into the way our brains process, store, and recall information. Priming can improve cognitive and behavioral response times as well as decrease anxiety, stress, and depression. 

Types of priming

Before learning about the therapeutic uses of priming, it may help to explore the many types of priming that often occur in everyday life.

  • Repetition Priming: When our brains experience a specific stimulus and response, the same response may be processed more quickly each subsequent time it is observed. In other words, repetition can sometimes help us think faster.

  • Positive And Negative Priming: Positive priming can speed up the reaction time between the stimulus and the response, whereas negative priming can slow it down. Repetition generally increases positive priming, while ignoring the stimulus may provide negative priming.

  • Perceptual Priming: This type of priming usually relies on forms, such as the format of a stimulus. For example, people may choose an item that is similar in size and shape to a stimulus they were recently exposed to.

  • Conceptual Priming: This type of priming is generally based on categories, the meaning of the stimulus, and semantic tasks that may reinforce the priming. For example, you might be primed to think of fruit in general when you see a blueberry. Psychologists can use this tool to look at how the concept of the stimulus is related to the individual being primed.

  • Associative Priming: We can often speed up response time or processing time by using a related word or act. This may be because the brain is faster at responding to a stimulus when it associates terms.

  • Semantic Priming: This type of priming is frequently used when items or words are associated logically or linguistically.

  • Response Priming: With response priming, the stimulus may be used to produce a motor effect. Stimulus speed and motor response speed usually increase together.

  • Kindness Priming: An act of kindness can produce happiness, and that positive emotion may lead others to see the positive around them. 

Priming uses

As mentioned earlier, you might see priming in many areas of life, including in brain games. You might also notice priming when you walk down the street, turn on the television, or talk to your therapist. Below, we'll look at these uses in more detail.

Psychology and research

Psychologists often use priming to study memory and the brain. Topics might relate to how the brain stores, retrieves and perceives information. As such, priming has contributed to new findings in research about Alzheimer's disease, including how the disease affects the brain.

Advertising and politics

Advertisers often employ cognitive and social psychology to get us to buy products or services, and priming is one of the ways they do so. Repetition and association often play a major role in how advertisers construct their campaigns. A few well-placed associations, the right colors, and some repetition may sell just about anything. That may be why priming is frequently used in print, audio, or video media. You may even see priming in politics as a politician tries to gain your vote.

Stress and depression

Positive priming can produce beneficial feelings and responses that can reduce stress, depression, and other mental health concerns. For this reason, priming can be helpful in therapy. When a client begins to associate therapy sessions with stress relief, their symptoms and quality of life may improve. If you've been to therapy before, you may have experienced priming. However, you may not have noticed because it's usually unconscious.


Yoga and meditation mantras can also serve as examples of priming at work. These motivational sayings are generally meant to elicit positive feelings and stress relief. They may work to prime the user for positivity. In addition, positive quotes can serve as a helpful tool to reinforce positive behavior. Each time a quote is repeated, the stimulus for positive thoughts may work to recall positive associations that have been made in the past.

Fears and anxiety

Exposure therapy can be another therapeutic method that uses priming. In this case, an individual may be exposed to something that causes them distress. This may happen all at once or gradually over time. After the individual has become used to the stimulus that causes their fear or anxiety, they may be primed to face it again in the future. In this way, priming may reduce unwanted reactions.


Addiction sometimes requires treatment from healthcare or mental health professionals, and priming might be used to ease the process. Priming can sometimes replace negative emotions and thoughts with positive ones, potentially empowering individuals to make positive changes in their lives. This approach may be particularly helpful for people who are recovering from a substance use disorder. In addition, negative priming might be used to create an aversion to an addictive substance or behavior.

Memory training

Memory can be primed for many associations, which can provide an extra boost when you're studying. Research has shown that repetition and association usually increase a student's ability to recall all types of information. In fact, creating associations using rhythm or rhyme has been employed to educate children for hundreds of years.

Use priming to your advantage with online therapy

As mentioned previously, priming frequently happens unconsciously in our daily lives. However, it can be possible to consciously use this cognitive tool to shape positive behaviors or let go of negative ones. A licensed therapist may be able to help you determine how priming and other cognitive tools can help you reach your goals. If you’re not interested in visiting a therapist’s office, you might consider online therapy, which numerous studies have shown to be effective. 

With BetterHelp, you can connect with a licensed therapist through phone, live chat, or videoconferencing. Your therapist may be able to teach you priming techniques to use in various areas of life. If you have questions about priming or anything else in between sessions, you can contact your therapist at any time via in-app messaging, and they’ll get back to you as soon as they can.

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Learn how the priming effect can help you break bad habits

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Priming is a cerebral phenomenon that uses a stimulus to activate your memory for future encounters with that stimulus. Many types of priming can occur in daily life, such as response priming, kindness priming, and conceptual priming. Although priming often happens unconsciously, you may be able to consciously use it to boost your long-term memory and adjust your thoughts and habits. A licensed therapist may be able to help you accomplish this more effectively, whether in person or online. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a licensed therapist who has knowledge and experience with the priming process. Take the first step toward using priming to your advantage and reach out to BetterHelp today.
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