What Is Priming Psychology And What Is It Used For?

By Jessica Anderson|Updated April 14, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Avia James, LPC

Priming is one of the unconscious ways our memories work when we're identifying words, objects, tasks, or situations at hand. Basically, priming means activating a specific part of your brain, so you're more likely to recognize something in front of you. For example, you can 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") increases the likelihood that they'll notice the blueberries first. This happens because the concepts of "blue" and "blueberries" are closely linked in our memories.

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When a word, an image, a sound, or any other stimulus elicits an associated response, priming is at play. If you need a strong study tool or a new therapy technique, you may want to learn more about this phenomenon. In this article, we'll learn all about priming, including different types of priming and how they can be used.

Priming is a technique used in cognitive psychology that conditions responses through exposure to specific stimuli. It 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 is known to improve cognitive and behavioral response times. In addition, it can decrease anxiety, stress, and depression. It can even be a strong study aid.

With all of these benefits, it's no surprise that it's used in therapy to help people improve their lives. It's a strong tool and can be used for a variety of purposes. You might even see priming in brain games. If you're interested in priming, you're not alone. Read on to learn if priming may be right for you.

Types Of Priming

Before learning about the therapeutic uses of priming, it's important to see and understand the many types of priming that are used in our society. Some of these descriptions may include complex psychological terms, but the techniques listed below should give you a broad overview of priming's many applications.

  • Repetition Priming: When our brains experience a specific stimulus and response, the same response will be processed quicker each subsequent time it is observed. In other words, repetition helps us think faster.
  • Positive and Negative Priming: Positive priming speeds up the reaction time between the stimulus and the response, whereas negative priming slows it down. Repetition increases positive priming, while ignoring the stimulus provides negative priming.
  • Perceptual Priming: This type of priming relies on forms, such as the exact format of a stimulus and the way in which a stimulus is introduced. In other words, individuals are conditioned to respond to a specific item.
  • Conceptual Priming: This type is based on categories, the meaning of the stimulus, and semantic tasks that reinforce the priming. For example, you might be primed to think of fruit in general when you see a blueberry. Psychologists use this tool to look at how the concept of the stimulus is related to the individual being primed.
  • Associative Priming: We can speed up response time or processing time by using a related word or act. It works off the knowledge that the brain is faster at responding to stimulus when it associates terms.
  • Semantic Priming: This is used when items or words are associated logically or linguistically.
  • Response Priming: Here, the stimulus is used to produce a motor effect. Stimulus speed and motor response speed increase together.
  • Masked Priming: When the stimulus is covered or hidden in some way, the brain can still unconsciously recognize it.
  • Kindness Priming: An act of kindness produces happiness, and that positive mood is unaffected by negative stimuli.

Priming Uses

Priming is a staple in our society and in our work with psychology and mental health. As we mentioned earlier, you might see priming 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 use priming to study and research memory and the brain. Topics might relate to how the brain stores information, how it retrieves it, and how it perceives it. As such, it's contributed to new findings in research about Alzheimer's disease, including how the disease affects the brain.

Advertising And Politics

Priming is also a crucial component in most advertising. Repetition and association play a major role in how advertisers construct their campaigns. A few well-placed associations, the right colors, and some repetition will sell just about anything. That's why it's 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 produces beneficial feelings and responses that can reduce stress, depression, and other burdens. That's why priming is helpful in therapy. When a client begins to associate therapy sessions with stress relief, their symptoms and their quality of life can improve. If you've been to therapy before, you've almost certainly used priming. You may not have noticed, however, because it's mostly unconscious. Still, know that, if you have made positive life changes with the help of therapy, you've already benefited from priming.


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

Fears And Anxiety

Exposure therapy is another therapeutic method that uses priming. In this case, the individual is 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 thing that causes their fear or anxiety, they're primed to face it again in the future. In this way, priming reduces these reactions.


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

Priming As A Cognitive Tool

As mentioned earlier, priming happens unconsciously all of the time. However, it's possible to use this cognitive tool to help shape our positive behaviors or let go of negative ones. A licensed counselor can help you to determine how priming and other cognitive tools can be used to help you reach your goals. Reach out to a counselor today to learn more.

In recent years, some of the more remarkable findings about priming that emerged in the ‘90s have been called into question. But other fundamental aspects of this phenomenon have not only been proven, they have been harnessed to augment human performance and psychological treatment. For example, a team of researchers boosted academic performance among a group of 583 2nd graders by priming them with problem-solving games three times a week. A different group tested priming among therapy patients who were seeking treatment for social phobia. They found that the primed test group experienced significantly more success in dealing with their symptoms than the control.

If you seek help from a therapist either in-person or online, there’s a good chance that they will use priming as a means to deliver insight. Research has shown this technique to be effective. Your therapist might also teach you priming techniques to use yourself. One of the biggest concerns among those seeking online therapy is that a therapist will not be able to observe their patients the same way. As a result, the subtle nuances of counseling may not play out the way they should. Science has repeatedly shown that this concern is unfounded. Online therapy has been repeatedly shown to be as effective as in-person treatment.

For those who seek online therapy, there is a strong chance that your therapist will employ priming to boost the effects of your treatment. Alternatively, if you believe priming or lack thereof is affecting you in some way, an online therapist can provide answers. If you have a busy schedule or have trouble getting to a therapy appointment for any reason, consider an online option like BetterHelp. This platform has thousands of licensed therapists, and you can meet with them from the comfort and privacy of your own home (or wherever you have an internet connection). See reviews of BetterHelp counselors below.

Counselor Reviews

"Mackenzie has transformed my Monday nights. I look forward to discussing everything with her. I feel understood, I feel heard, I feel respected, and I feel confident confiding things with her. She challenges me. She supports me. She builds my confidence. With her guidance, I know my feelings are valid and that I will be ok. She keeps track of my progress. Thank you Mackenzie!”

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“Jennifer is so lovely. She is kind, personable, and knowledgeable. I particularly appreciate the times when she sympathizes and is able to reply empathetically, ensuring me that I'm not alone in the daunting expanse I call my mind. She is responsive, understanding, accommodating, and, for my first time in therapy, a really wonderful fit. I was so hesitant to begin therapy, and Jennifer has made it such a safe space that I'm no longer scared to enter.”


Priming is an interesting and useful psychological tool with a wide variety of uses in therapy and in society in general. If you think priming may be right for you, reach out to your therapist today. It may be the tool you need to enjoy your life to the fullest.

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