Communication Priming
Francesca R. Dillman Carpentier
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0012


Using the analogy of priming a water pump to get the water ready for use, priming in social science research refers to the “activation” of an idea in a person’s mind, readying that idea for use in later activities, such as making a judgment or reacting to someone else’s action. Thus, priming involves how we cognitively process information. Theories about how and why priming effects occur are largely based on network models of semantic memory. According to these network models, information is stored in memory as nodes. Each node represents a concept, and, like a computer network, each node is connected to other nodes via associative pathways. The closer two nodes are to one another, the more related those nodes are to each other. When one node is activated (e.g., activating “weapon” by seeing a gun on television), the activation can spread to other related nodes (e.g., “aggression”). All of the activated nodes are now easily accessible in memory, “primed” for later use. Hundreds of studies across psychology, communication, political science, and other fields have tested and observed that single words, images, music, narratives—anything that conveys a concept stored in a person’s memory—can elicit a priming effect. Much of the theory development with regard to priming comes from psychology via studies that tend to use simple primes, such as single words or short sentences, to test for priming effects. Communication research tends to focus on how news and entertainment media can serve as primes that influence people’s thoughts and behaviors. Because of this focus, communication scholars are necessarily dealing with a higher level of complexity with regard to the actual primes, as any one news story, entertainment program, popular song, or music video can trigger multiple ideas in the media consumer’s mind.

General Overviews

A large number of studies in communication evaluate priming effects specific to depictions of violence, sex, race/stereotypes, as well as evaluating effects of advertising and political communication. Roskos-Ewoldsen, et al. 2008 and Roskos-Ewoldsen, et al. 2007 provide reviews of priming studies in communication, the former focusing on theoretical underpinnings and the latter focusing on similarities and differences in methods and results across these studies. Herring, et al. 2013 and McNamara 2005 discuss priming from a psychology perspective. Herring, et al. 2013 provides an analysis of the major effects coupled with the types of primes used, whereas McNamara 2005 focuses more specifically on theoretical and methodological foundations in priming research. As the above reviews cite Higgins’s work in reference to general knowledge activation, Higgins 1996, a chapter on knowledge activation, is included in this section. Finally, Price and Tewksbury 1997, Scheufele 2000, and Scheufele and Tewksbury 2007 review the literature on priming and knowledge accessibility from a political-communication perspective, with each consecutive work building off the previous review. Taken together, these three reviews provide a historical account of the development of political priming theory and highlight different methodologies for studying priming within political communication.

  • Herring, David R., Katherine R. White, Linsa N. Jabeen, et al. 2013. On the automatic activation of attitudes: A quarter century of evaluative priming research. Psychological Bulletin 139:1062–1089.

    DOI: 10.1037/a0031309

    NNNThis meta-analysis reviews a quarter century of studies of priming effects on judgments, from evaluative decisions to lexical decision tasks. Media primes are not discussed. However, primes are analyzed with regard to factors that describe the diversity of media primes, including repetition of the prime, verbal/nonverbal characteristics, and positive/negative valence.

  • Higgins, E. Tory. 1996. Knowledge activation: Accessibility, applicability and salience. In Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles. Edited by E. Tory Higgins and Arie W. Kruglanski, 133–168. New York: Guilford.

    NNNThis chapter is an excellent primer on how we think memory is stored and retrieved, as well as how concepts are activated in memory and become more accessible, or “ready,” for use in later thoughts and actions. Key concepts often used to describe the priming process are expressly defined.

  • McNamara, Timothy P. 2005. Semantic priming: Perspectives from memory and word recognition. New York: Psychology Press.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203338001

    NNNThis book describes models that underpin semantic priming, including spreading activation models, distributed network models, multistage activation models, and compound-cue models. Methodological issues in testing priming effects are discussed, as are the typical effects recorded in the psychology literature.

  • Price, Vincent, and David Tewksbury. 1997. News values and public opinion: A theoretical account of media priming and framing. In Progress in communication sciences. Vol. 13, Advances in persuasion. Edited by George A. Barnett and Franklin J. Boster, 173–212. Greenwich, CT: Ablex.

    NNNThis chapter describes the psychological processes underlying media priming and framing effects. The discussion about priming harkens back to the idea of network models of memory, detailing what it means to increase the accessibility of a concept and how this increased accessibility might cause short-term and long-term effects.

  • Roskos-Ewoldsen, David R., Mark R. Klinger, and Beverly Roskos-Ewoldsen. 2007. Media priming. In Mass media effects research: Advances through meta-analysis. Edited by Raymond W. Preiss, Barbara Mae Gayle, Nancy Burrell, Mike Allen, and Jennings Bryant, 53–80. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

    NNNThis meta-analysis provides an overview of priming, relying largely on network models of memory to explain priming effects. Special attention is given to media violence and political communication. The authors then take forty-two priming studies and analyze the magnitude, duration, and homogeneity of priming effects across these studies.

  • Roskos-Ewoldsen, David R., Beverly Roskos-Ewoldsen, and Francesca Dillman Carpentier. 2008. Media priming: An updated synthesis. In Media effects: Advances in theory and research. 3d ed. Edited by Jennings Bryant and Mary Beth Oliver, 74–93. New York: Routledge.

    NNNA follow-up to a synthesis from the previous edition of Media Effects, this chapter reviews key studies in media violence, political news coverage, and stereotype activation. Models describing how priming effects occur are also reviewed and discussed in terms of how well they explain short-term and long-term effects.

  • Scheufele, Dietram A. 2000. Agenda-setting, priming, and framing revisited: Another look at cognitive effects of political communication. Mass Communication and Society 3:297–316.

    DOI: 10.1207/S15327825MCS0323_07

    NNNDrawing in part on Price and Tewksbury 1997, this article presents two models in an attempt to provide a theoretical differentiation between agenda setting and priming processes and processes leading to framing effects. Priming and agenda setting are linked by their reliance on memory-based models and use of increased accessibility.

  • Scheufele, Dietram A., and David Tewksbury. 2007. Framing, agenda setting, and priming: The evolution of three media effects models. Journal of Communication 57:9–20.

    NNNBuilding on Scheufele 2000, this article further differentiates between the accessibility-based frameworks of priming and agenda setting and the underlying framework that best describes framing. Priming is described in terms of memory-based models. The journal issue in which this article appears contains additional discussion about differentiating between framing, priming, and agenda setting.

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