Communication Priming
Francesca R. Dillman Carpentier
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 May 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2022
  • 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 informing a judgement or guiding a reaction to someone else’s action. Thus, priming involves how we cognitively process information. Explanations for how priming effects occur are largely based on network models of semantic memory. According to these 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 through 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., seeing a picture of sand dunes might call up the thought “desert”), the activation can spread to related nodes (e.g., “hot”), which can spread to further related nodes (e.g., “thirsty”). These activated nodes are now “primed” for use in influencing our next thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. Namely, the person primed with the picture of the sand dune might now want to reach for some water. Studies across social science have found 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 often use simple primes, such as single words or short sentences, to test for priming effects. Communication research often focuses on how more complex stimuli—news or entertainment products, for example—can elicit priming effects. Because of this focus, communication scholars are often dealing with a variety of potential words, visuals, and auditory cues that can prime concepts, all of which are embedded within a complicated package—a news story, entertainment program, popular song, or music video—that is triggering multiple ideas at once. In these studies, the goal is often to see whether the prime of interest can be detected over all this complication, by detecting its priming effect.

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. Ewoldsen and Rhodes 2020 and Dillman Carpentier 2020 provide reviews of priming studies in communication, the former focusing on explaining foundational theoretical concepts explaining priming effects and the latter focusing on the development of priming research and the types and limitations of priming effects. Roskos-Ewoldsen, et al. 2007 provides a meta-analysis of priming effects from studies across communication, highlighting 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.

  • Dillman Carpentier, Francesca R. 2020. Priming. In The international encyclopedia of media psychology. Edited by Jan van den Bulck. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781119011071.iemp0069

    This entry provides a history of research on how ideas become associated in memory and explains types and limits of associative priming effects relevant to most media and communication research, followed by describing and differentiating between studies of stereotype, violence, and political priming.

  • Ewoldsen, David R., and Nancy Rhodes. 2020. Media priming and accessibility. In Media effects: Advances in theory and research. 4th ed. Edited by Mary Beth Oliver, Arthur A. Raney, and Jennings Bryant, 83–99. New York: Routledge.

    This chapter reviews the key concept of accessibility of ideas and attitudes in memory and implications for influencing later thoughts and actions, in addition to providing an overview of media priming effects relevant to topics of violence, politics, stereotypes, and self-representation (avatars).

  • 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

    This meta-analysis reviews a quarter century of studies of priming effects on judgements, 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.

    This 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

    This 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.

  • 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.

    This 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.

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