Written by Cherice Chan and Dillon Murphy
Have you associated the word “slow” with the elderly, a flag with your identity, or the word “dangerous” with people of a certain race? These everyday associations can be evoked by subtle stimuli, such as words, actions, or objects, and can substantially influence people’s behavior. Through a cognitive process called priming, certain stimuli can activate our brain’s memory system and subsequently influence our thoughts, feelings, and actions without us even noticing.
Priming, or changes in our perception due to recent experiences, is often the result of a three-step process (Doyen et al., 2014). First, a person is exposed to a prime stimulus, which could be an image, word, or a feature of the environment. Second, the prime increases a conceptual category’s accessibility in the brain, which increases the likelihood of that conceptual category influencing the encoding of new information (Fiske & Taylor, 2013). Finally, the newly activated representations result in perceptual or behavioral changes.
Early research on the effects of priming studied how evoking thoughts of certain personality traits influence impressions of others. For example, when exposed to positive personality traits (e.g., “adventurous”, “independent”) or negative traits (e.g., “reckless”, “conceited”) before reading an ambiguous paragraph about a theoretical person, participants rated and characterized the theoretical person as more positive or more negative, respectively (Higgins et al., 1977). Furthermore, subsequent work demonstrated that participants in priming studies are generally unaware of both the priming stimuli and how their memory of the stimuli is later expressed, indicating that priming can be an unconscious process (Bargh & Pietromonaco, 1982; Tulving & Schacter, 1990). As a result, researchers have found that people can be unknowingly primed as a result of exposure to almost anything around us: words, photos, ideas, objects in a room, colors on a wall, cultural symbols (e.g., flags), and smells (Doyen et al., 2014; Gilovich et al., 2018). However, when the potential influence of primed stimuli is consciously acknowledged, the effects of priming are often diminished (Molden, 2014).
In addition to influencing our impressions of someone, priming can also affect people’s actions. In a pioneering study, Bargh et al. (1996) demonstrated three examples of how unconsciously processed stimuli can drive behavior. In their initial experiment, participants were asked to unscramble sentences that contained words related to either rudeness or politeness. Once participants completed the task, they were told to locate the experimenter to begin the next part of the experiment but each time the experimenter would be in a conversation with a confederate. Those who were exposed to sentences with words related to rudeness interrupted the experimenter more quickly and frequently than participants exposed to sentences with words related to politeness. Similarly, in a second experiment, participants were asked to unscramble words either relevant to elderly stereotypes or age-neutral words. Participants who unscrambled words like “Florida”, “bingo”, and “conservative” subsequently walked slower down the hallway when leaving the experiment than participants who unscrambled age-neutral words, despite never being exposed to the word “slow”.
In a third experiment, Bargh et al. (1996) instructed non-Black participants to complete a tedious visual computerized task. Before each trial, the computer displayed a subliminal image (shown for under 26 milliseconds) of either a young Black face or a young Caucasian face. After completing over 100 trials, the computer displayed an error message, and participants were instructed to restart the task. Those who subliminally viewed Black faces reacted with more hostility than participants exposed to White faces. In a post-task interview, only 2 of 41 participants reported seeing the faces and the two that did were unable to identify the race of faces they saw. Thus, even without the conscious awareness of processing a face, the race of primed faces can influence behavior.
Unfortunately, the results of many social priming studies have come under fire in the last decade. The effects of multiple classic priming studies have been overgeneralized (see Cesario, 2014) and researchers have been unable to replicate many of the effects, including Bargh et al.’s (1996) seminal elderly stereotype experiments (Doyen et al., 2012). To address replication criticisms, researchers have invoked several changes to research methods. For example, many journals now require the preregistration of study design as well as increased sample sizes, which so far have been effective in increasing the replicability of effects (Chivers, 2019; Jonas et al., 2017).
Although early priming research has often failed to replicate, we should not discount priming’s existing effect in our daily lives. A meta-analysis of 352 priming experiments supported social priming, indicating that priming effect sizes, while often small, are stronger when the prime was associated with a valued or incentivized goal or behavior (Weingarten et al., 2016). Thus, social priming researchers should avoid making wide-sweeping generalizations and instead focus on effects within subsets of populations that have goals related to the prime (Chivers, 2019). While not everyone will walk slower after exposure to words related to the elderly stereotype, we can still utilize priming to study how stereotypes and associations can unconsciously influence people’s thoughts and actions.
Despite the failed replications of many priming studies, priming is still generally considered a valid cognitive process and continues to be a subject of research with important social implications. For example, recent work has used priming effects to examine prejudicial attitudes. Specifically, the Affect Misattribution Procedure (AMP) can reveal participants’ attitudes by briefly presenting an image (e.g., a white face or a Muslim face) before asking participants to judge a neutral stimulus. When participants subsequently judge the neutral image, attitudes towards Muslims compared to Caucasians can manifest themselves via positive or negative attitudes towards the neutral stimulus (Payne & Lundberg, 2014). Similar procedures have also revealed attitudes regarding drinking, smoking, and political views (Gilovich et al., 2018). Therefore, social priming can be a valuable tool for the study of topics that are vulnerable to a social desirability bias (i.e., when participants respond in a way they believe would be more socially acceptable or in a way that places them in a better light; Nederhof, 1985).
Priming has important implications for our everyday lives, especially when racial and gender biases can influence outcomes. For example, police officers and juvenile probation officers endorsed harsher punishments after being primed with words related to Black stereotypes compared to neutral words (Graham & Lowery, 2004). Additionally, priming the idea of power can lead men to have inappropriate sexual thoughts (Rudman & Borgida, 1995). By using priming, we can observe and analyze the effects of many unconscious attitudes on behavior, which can aid in combatting bias and prejudice, especially in an era when people are unwilling to overtly express it.
In sum, priming is a powerful cognitive mechanism that impacts how we perceive and interact with the world around us. We are prone to the effects of unconsciously processed stimuli and although some instances of priming effects might seem trivial and dubious, like an image of a dog evoking more loyal behavior in humans (Chartrand et al., 2008), there could be negative consequences when subliminal images of Black men later evoke hostile attitudes. Thus, especially when we evaluate other people and our surroundings, we should try to be aware that our attitudes can be biased by something recently perceived, even if we are unaware that we perceived it.
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