What is Priming and How is it Used Therapeutically?

Psychologically speaking, priming is a technique in which the introduction of stimulus influences how people respond to a subsequent stimulus. Priming works by activating a representation in memory before another task is introduced. This phenomenon occurs without consciousness being involved but it has major implications for everyday life.

How it Works

Different examples exist for how priming works. Let’s say someone is exposed to the word ‘yellow,’ which evokes a faster response to the word ‘banana’ than it would to ‘television.’ since these colors and foods are linked in memory, people respond faster when the second word is presented. Priming can work with other stimuli, too.


Several types of priming exist. Each one works in different ways with different effects, including:

  • Semantic priming: words associated in a logical or linguistic way. Earlier examples of responding to ‘banana,’ for example, more rapidly after being primed with ‘yellow’ is semantic priming
  • Positive and negative priming: describes how priming influences processing speed. Positive priming makes processing faster and speeds up memory retrieval, while negative priming slows it down
  • Associative priming: involves using two stimuli normally associated with one another. ‘Cat’ and ‘mouse’ are two words often linked with one another in memory, so appearances of words can prime a subject to respond rapidly when second word appears
  • Repetition priming: occurs when stimulus and response are paired. Subjects become more likely to respond in certain ways more quickly each time stimulus appears
  • Perceptual priming: stimuli has similar forms like ‘goat’ evokes faster responses when preceded by ‘boat’ because two words are similar

The Process

The way psychologists use these ways of thinking is through activation of them in many ways. Memories are easier to access when associated with something in the memory. Priming suggests certain schemas tend to be activated in unison. By activating some units of information, related or connected units also become active. This psychological process takes place in the subconscious, with the phenomenon playing a key role in influencing how you interpret information affecting behavior. Priming can play a part in emotions and how you behave.

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