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Priming in psychology occurs when an earlier stimulus influences response to a later stimulus. For example, when a person reads a list of words including the word table, and is later asked to complete a word starting with tab, the probability that subject answers table is higher than for non-primed people. Another example of priming involves people being shown an incomplete sketch which they are unable to identify: they are shown more of the sketch until they recognize the picture. Later they will identify the sketch at an earlier stage than was possible for them the first time.[1]

Priming works best when the two stimuli are in the same modality. For example visual priming works best with visual cues and verbal priming works best with verbal cues. But priming also occurs between modalities,[2] or between semantically related words such as doctor and nurse.[3]

Priming can be perceptual or conceptual. Perceptual priming is based on the form of the stimulus and is enhanced by the match between the early and later stimuli. Perceptual priming is sensitive to the modality and exact format of the stimulus. An example of perceptual priming is the identification of the incomplete sketch in the experiment described above. Conceptual priming is based on the meaning of a stimulus and is enhanced by semantic tasks. For example, table, will show priming effects on chair, because table and chair belong to the same category.[4]

A distinction is also made between semantic priming and associative priming. In semantic priming, the prime and the target are from the same semantic category and share features; in associative priming, on the other hand, the target is a word that has a high probability of appearing with the prime, and is "associated" with it but not necessarily related in semantic features.[5] For example, the word dog is a semantic prime for wolf, because the two are both similar animals, but dog is not an associative prime for wolf because the words don't frequently occur together. On the other hand, dog is an associative prime for cat, since the words are closely associated and frequently appear together (in phrases like "raining cats and dogs").[6]

An important feature of a priming task is that amnesic subjects perform as well on it as control subjects do, indicating through their performance that they, too, remember what was on the previous study list, even though they report no conscious recollection of ever having seen the list. This is taken as one kind of evidence that implicit and explicit memory are different.[1]

Priming of amnesic subjects with words that were unknown to them prior to the injury is impaired; this has been argued to demonstrate that priming depends on the activation of existing memory.[1] This interpretation, however, is undermined by normal or near normal priming using nonverbal materials in amnesic subjects.[7]

One theory of priming is that the first stimulus activates parts of particular representation or associations in memory just before carrying out an action or task. The representation is already activated when the second stimulus is encountered, thus improving performance of the task. It is considered to be one of the manifestations of implicit memory.


  1. ^ a b c Kolb & Whishaw: Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology (2003), page 453-454, 457.
  2. ^ Several researchers, for example, have used cross-modal priming to investigate syntactic deficits in individuals with damage to Broca's area of the brain. See the following:
    • Zurif, E.B., D. Swinney, P. Prather, J. Solomon and C. Bushell (1993). "An on-line analysis of syntactic processing in Broca's and Wernicke's aphasia." Brain and Language 45, 448-464.
    • Swinney, D., E. Zurif, P. Prather, and T. Love (1993). "The neurological distribution of processing operations underlying language comprehension." Manuscript, Department of Psychology, University of California, San Diego.
    • For an overview, see also Zurif, E.B. (1995), "Brain Regions of Relevance to Syntactic Processing." in Knowledge of Meaning: An Introduction to Semantic Theory, eds. Richard Larson and Gabriel Segal. MIT Press.
  3. ^ Friederici, Angela D.; Karsten Steinhauer and Stefan Frisch (1999). "Lexical integration: Sequential effects of syntactic and semantic information". Memory & Cognition 27 (3): 438–453. "Semantic priming refers to the finding that word recognition is typically faster when the target word (e.g., doctor) is preceded by a semantically related prime word (e.g., nurse).".  
  4. ^ Vaidya, Chandan L; Laura A Monti; John DE Gabrieli; Jared R Tinklenburg; Jerome A Yesevage (1999). "Dissociation between two forms of conceptual priming in Alzheimer's disease". Neuropsychology 13 (4).  
  5. ^ Ludovic Ferrand and Boris New: Semantic and associative priming in the mental lexicon, found on:
  6. ^ Matsukawa, Junko; Joan Gay Snodgrass; Glen M. Doniger (2005). "Conceptual versus perceptual priming in incomplete picture identification". Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 34 (6).  
  7. ^ Bowers and Schacter (2003): Priming of novel information in amnesic patients: Issues and data, in Graff and Masson, New Directions in Cognition, Development and Neuropsychology.


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