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.1 [1. See also:
- what-when-how, Priming, The-Crankshaft Publishing. (n.d.), http://what-when-how.com/social-sciences/priming-social-science/. ↩