10.9 The Priming Effect: Accessibility, Priming & Perceptual Salience

Jan 15, 2020 | Cognitive Psychology, Courses, ch10 Mental Organisation of Knowledge

The priming effect is an interesting cognitive process studied by social psychologists. We discuss the effect in this lesson, along with several key terms that are important in understanding the phenomenon: schemata, accessibility, priming, and perceptual salience.

Schemata

Imagine you just discovered that your wife is (or you are) pregnant. Suddenly, you see babies everywhere – in the store, in the park, in commercials, and on billboards. This is a prime example of a social cognitive process called priming. You’ve probably experienced the priming effect many, many times without realizing it. To best understand the priming effect, we first need to discuss schemata and accessibility.

Schemata is simply the plural form of schema. A schema is a mental framework or concept we use to organize and understand the world. If you see an animal, you can quickly decide if it’s a bird, mammal, etc. Each basic animal category is an example of a schema. We have a schema for every important category or structure that exists in our world.

Accessibility

How do we decide which schema to use? The decision usually occurs below the conscious level and is partially determined by the level of accessibility, which can be defined as the ease with which a schema is brought to mind and used to make judgments. A schema that is highly accessible is more likely to be used than one that is not highly accessible. For example, imagine you were walking along a forest trail and thinking about bears. If you heard a growl and saw a bush moving, you are most likely to assume that a bear is close by rather than a dog.

Priming

A schema can be highly accessible all the time. For instance, someone with a phobia of bears would probably always be thinking of them while in a forest. A schema can also be highly accessible just temporarily, due to something that has just happened. For example, imagine you live in an old, creaky house and one night watch a scary movie on television. When the movie ends, you go to bed but lay awake, unable to sleep because of the noises echoing throughout the house. Each time you hear something, an image of an intruder coming to kill you in your sleep pops into your head.

Just like seeing babies everywhere when you are pregnant, this is another example of priming, which is an increased sensitivity to a particular schema due to a recent experience. In other words, priming is when an experience or exposure to a stimulus puts a particular schema at the forefront of our mind. When this in turn influences our judgments and decisions, it’s called the priming effect.

A scary movie can act as a primer or cue, inducing your fear and making you suspicious of common noises in your house that, under different circumstances, you would probably consider harmless. Instead of using an everyday schema (such as old house noises) to interpret the sound, watching the scary movie results in a different schema (intruder noises) becoming more accessible, changing your interpretation.

Perceptual Salience

There is another cognitive process called perceptual salience that increases the accessibility of a schema, sometimes in partnership with priming. Perceptual salience is the perceived significance of information that is the focus of attention. In other words, an object’s degree of perceptual salience is the extent to which it stands out and grabs people’s attention as important. For example, continue imagining a night when you had watched a scary movie and then laid awake in bed. Because you were primed, sounds were much more salient than usual; you were much more aware of them than you otherwise would be.

Now, even if you could explain away the sounds that are normal for your house, what do you think would happen if you heard a new sound – one that you had never heard before in your house? You would probably pay even more attention to that sound, right? It would have an even higher level of perceptual salience than the other sounds in your house and make the ‘intruder noises’ schema even more accessible.

Lesson Summary

In summary, priming is an increased sensitivity to a particular schema due to a recent experience. The priming effect occurs when an experience or exposure to a stimulus puts a particular schema at the forefront of our mind. A schema is a mental framework or concept we use to organize and understand the world. The accessibility of a schema is the ease with which a schema is brought to mind and used to make judgments. Priming makes a schema highly accessible temporarily.

Another cognitive process that can increase the accessibility of a schema is perceptual salience, which is the perceived significance of information that is the focus of attention. In other words, an object’s degree of perceptual salience is the extent to which it stands out and grabs people’s attention as important.

Learning Outcomes

After this lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Explain what social psychologists mean by priming and describe the priming effect
  • Define schemata and accessibility, and summarize their relationships with priming
  • Define perceptual salience and compare and contrast it with priming
10.10 The Three Types of Memory Structure & Our Understanding of Knowledge
10.8 Declarative & Procedural Knowledge: Differences & Uses