PRIMING (Social Science)

People are influenced by their immediate environment, which includes the objects, situations, and persons they encounter. Indeed, features of the environment can affect psychological experiences and behaviors so subtly that people fail to notice these influences. Priming refers to an unobtrusive and momentary environmental influence on an individual’s psychological experiences and behaviors. The term priming has also been used to describe the experimental technique researchers use to study these effects in the laboratory.

How does priming work? The dominant explanation posits that environmental features temporarily activate (prime) mentally represented concepts, such as attitudes, behaviors, emotions, goals, memories, stereotypes, and traits. For example, suppose that you encounter a dog on the street. This encounter activates the concept "dog" and its associated traits, such as "furry" and "loyal." Once activated, primed concepts become more likely to influence immediate cognitions (e.g., thoughts, judgments), feelings, and behaviors. So, if immediately after encountering the dog you are asked to name a characteristic that is important in a friend, you may be temporarily more likely to say "loyalty."

Importantly, priming effects occur automatically. That is, concepts can be activated without awareness and go on to bias overt responses in ways that people do not intend and cannot control. Supraliminal priming describes cases in which people are aware of an environmental cue, but are not aware of its influence on them, such as in the dog example above. In subliminal priming, people are not even aware of an environmental cue, yet it still influences them. As an example, imagine moviegoers who are flashed a brand of drink for fractions of a second, below the radar of conscious perception, and unwittingly choose it over other beverages.

Priming effects are explained by presuming that concepts are mentally represented in an associative network. Only when associations between concepts are strong does activating one concept temporarily activate others. Because associations are strengthened through repeated and consistent pairing, environmental cues that are encountered frequently can be powerful primes. Take, for instance, relationship partners. Among students who strongly associate their mothers with the goal to work hard, subliminally priming the word mother will activate the goal to "work hard" and the students will persist longer and perform better on a subsequent academic test (Shah 2003). Sometimes these strong associations arise through learned sociocultural stereotypes. An individual’s group membership and stereotypes related to that group can be primed and help or hinder performance, depending on the stereotype activated. For instance, if Asian American women are asked about their gender, their quantitative performance on a subsequent test will suffer, but if asked about their ethnicity, their quantitative performance will improve (Shih, Pittinsky, and Ambady 1999). Priming stereotypes can also influence members of non-stereotyped groups. Young adults exposed to words related to the elderly stereotype, including sentimentaland wrinkle, will subsequently walk down a corridor more slowly (Bargh, Chen, and Burrows 1996).

The idea that behavior is not always consciously and intentionally guided raises questions about personal accountability. Suppose that a child behaves aggressively after watching violent television. To what extent is the child’s aggression due to an active, intentional, conscious thought process versus a passive process that does not require conscious intention or motivation on the part of the child? The roles attributed to conscious choice versus environmental determinism in explaining aggressive behavior, and other primed behaviors, have tremendous legal and policy implications.

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