Priming Theory

Media Effects On Cognitive Processes

When you are exposed to something novel or exciting by the media, what sort of effect does that exposure have on your cognitive processes and how you perceive related media messages?Researchers such as Roskos-Ewoldsen have sought to answer that question with the development of a cognitive theory called priming. This cognitive theory refers to the short-term impact of exposure on subsequent judgments or behaviors.

In layman's terms, this cognitive theory merely extrapolates on the ancient concept of planting an idea (INCEPTION!) into audience minds a way that dominates any further debate on the subject. Demosthenes was an ancient Greek demagogue who used priming to cripple local political figures' thought processes and let the democracy be conquered by Alexander of Macedon. In the modern world, Iyengar, Peters and Kinder formulated the current iteration of the theory in 1982.

Other researchers, such as Roskos-Ewoldsen et al., suggest that mental representations resulting from how people comprehend media messages is a good way to understand priming as it relates to the media. Two models that attempt to explain priming’s cognitive processes are Anderson et al.’s affective aggression model and Price and Tewksbury’s network model of political priming, both of which rely on network models of memory. And more recently (relatively), you may even have been one of many who personally experienced priming when Tina Fey famously impersonated vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential campaign (more on that later).

The Major Concepts Related to Priming

Time Bound and Short-Term

This cognitive theory has several major concepts, and these include the following:

1. Priming is an effect of a prior stimulus on how we act to a subsequent stimulus, according to research conducted by Roskos-Ewoldsen.

2. These effects are time bound and generally thought to be short-term, but “short-term” is different for the areas of violent media priming, political priming, and priming of racial stereotypes, with political effects seemingly lasting the longest and violent effects the shortest.

3. Judgments informed by priming are dependent on how thoroughly the media focuses on an issue, as well as how simple or complex the issue is, with familiar topics being more likely to prime judgments than unfamiliar or complex ones.

4. A variety of media can act as primes, and media can act as a prime in a variety of research domains, again according to Roskos-Ewoldsen et al.

5. Media priming can happen independently of the stated intentions for specific media, such as when unrelated media about gender or race influences judgments and stereotypes in those categories.

Although priming by the media is described as having short-term effects on behavior, just what constitutes “short-term” differs based on what type of media priming is being considered. Independent of research domain, the effect of priming on behavior is a result of the intensity (frequency or duration) and recency of the prime, with more intense primes producing greater effects. Effects are believed to fade with time, but again, just exactly how long that time is differs across research domains. Media priming focused on violence shows effects that fade almost immediately, while political priming has effects that are argued to last for up to two months after media exposure (Roskos-Ewoldsen et al.), as when opinions about Sarah Palin were found to be informed by a caricature of the candidate by Tina Fey several months after the caricature had achieved mainstream prominence.[2] A greater frequency of exposure to this caricature likely informed how great the priming effect was in each subject. Let's take a closer look at how this caricature was presented to the public, and what sort of effects it may have had on the ongoing political debate.

Tina Fey and Sarah Palin
Credit: AP

The Curious Case of Tina Fey Glasses

You Didn't Invent Glasses

Political scientists Jody Baumgardner, Jonathan Morris and Natasha Walth were among the many researchers who studied the priming effect that Tina Fey's impression of Sarah Palin had on political audiences (traditionally one of the areas where this cognitive theory has the greatest effect). Their study found that watching Tina Fey’s impressions of Sarah Palin on “Saturday Night Live” was more likely to cause young Republicans to not support the 2008 Republican ticket of presidential candidate John McCain and vice-presidential hopeful Sarah Palin, then governor of Alaska. 

Apparently, those audience members who watched the clip from SNL had a 45.4 percent probability of saying that Palin’s nomination made them less likely to vote for McCain, compared to 34 percent who saw coverage of the actual debate or were exposed to the news of the nomination through other media and not "Saturday Night Live." The effect itself was limited to right-wing voters, and had no bearing on Democrats or those who said they would vote for Barack Obama in the election.

Researchers suggested that priming theory definitely helps to explain why this attitude change about Palin would come about as a result of Fey's caricature of the candidate. What "Saturday Night Live" did as an agent of the media was to draw attention to a particular element of politics at the expense of others. In this case, it may have been as simple as the similar visual cues between Fey and Palin that existed in audience minds as a result of their similar eyewear. Since audience members can only process so much information, they use familiar concepts to quickly catalog and sort any incoming data. In this case, political humor as a form of negative priming helped to engender a negative perception of the target: in this case, Sarah Palin. Additionally, it may not have helped that Tina Fey and the writers at SNL had so much material about Palin to use to effectively create negative prime of the candidate through caricature.

The research on media priming has changed over the years from focusing on whether or not priming exists to how widespread it is. However, although priming is known to be an element of cognition, exactly what cognitive processes take place during priming have not been well-researched. Also, these processes differ in each research domain (stereotyping, violence, and political judgments), to the degree that violence priming and political priming could even be considered to be different phenomena.[1] Political priming, for example, could be thought of as a result of repeated news stories leading to chronic accessibility of news information, or a result of well-developed schemata and/or mental models.