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Priming: The Subconscious Memory Feature

Priming is a phrase that refers to a subconscious memory feature of the human brain that deals with perceptual identification of words and objects. The activation of specific associations or representations in anticipation of a task or action can be defined as the process. Priming occurs when a person reads the word "red" and immediately thinks of danger or blood. Priming is usually visible when the media influences the audience or public's judgment or how they react to political or news items. Priming gives the public a prior understanding which is eventually used in the interpretation of subsequent communications and helps us to judge whether the news content was effectively communicated and the credibility of the persons concerned.

Priming in Psychological Context

Psychologically speaking, priming has been used to explain the impacts on judgments or behaviors the media has on the public in general. Priming in the psychological context has been used in violence and sex issues in the media. Scholars in political communication, in contrast to social psychologists, have used priming in a few areas until Iyengar, Peters and Kinder (1982) concluded after several experiments, that the media has a great effect that surpasses agenda setting. They called this new effect the "priming effect", describing the theory as 'the process in which the media concentrates on some issues and not others, thereby altering the standards by which the public evaluates election candidates.' The theory is based on the assumption that people are not as knowledgeable on political matters and do not often make decisions based on all they know but rather quick to judge when making political decisions. By emphasizing on some aspects more than others, the media plays a big role in influencing political judgments. Based on cognitive psychology, the media priming theory is based on the human memory model of associative network, in which a concept or idea that is related to other concepts or ideas is stored as a node in the network by semantic paths. Priming is likened to a node in this network that is activated to serve as a filter for further processing and judgment of information. Peters, Iyengar, and Kinder (1982) showed the relationship between priming and media effects through carrying out an experiment that was to measure agenda setting done by television news media. In this study, they edited news programs to have emphasis on issues concerning pollution, inflation, and national defense. They then tested the public on their perceptions of the said issues and compared them with control groups. Also measuring the ratings of how President Carter performed in tackling these issues together with his overall appraisal. According to the authors, this approach allowed them to examine a different but consequently equal version of agenda setting. The media is more likely to change the standards by which the public evaluates the government by emphasizing some issues while ignoring others. The results of the experiment showed the phenomena of both agenda setting and priming. Iyengar et al. discovered the evidence of agenda setting in positive relation between the exposures to a political issue and how important it is when used to evaluate the president, also discovered that the same standards could affect the actual evaluation of how the president performed, and thereby resulting into priming. The experiment showed the potential of the news media in directing the attention of the public as well as perceptions of politicians. The researchers also showed that people who were highly politically knowledgeable reported lower effects of priming. Through this experiment, it can be concluded that there are varied implications of priming depending on the knowledge a person is given prior to being exposed to political news media.

A Different Effect of Priming

The experiment by Krosnick and Kinder (1990) sets out to show a different effect of priming that affects in great detail foundations of the public support for the U.S. president by taking a different but complementary approach to the one that currently dominates research. The authors set out to demonstrate that although the trending priming effect is popular, it cannot demonstrate the dynamics involved in individual change. The aggregate priming results may show us that a scandal can weaken the public's support of the president but not how the scandal eventually affects the way an individual citizen thinks. Besides claiming that all citizens tend to react in the same way, it does not show exactly what that citizen is actually doing or what is happening at the individual level. Krosnick and Kinder believed that President Reagan's decline in popularity was affected by the media's fascination with covert aid in the Contras and the public opposing the intervention in Central America. Research has shown us that people do not normally take into account plausible explanations by examining and carefully weighing overall implications before making decisions. They typically forgo the exhaustive analysis preferring to take intuitive shortcuts relying on the most accessible information that comes to mind easily. During presidential performance evaluations, U.S citizens tend to focus on what comes to mind easily and this is information that is provided by the media. As a result, the standards by which citizens will use to judge a president will be determined by the stories the news media chooses to cover and make accessible to the public. The authors also used the Iran-Contra revelation to find out whether some individuals are more susceptible to priming than others. They discovered that people who are more knowledgeable about particular issues react differently to changes in the news media because they are conversant with the said issues and possess more flexible and great ability to deal with new information enabling them to interpret it in ways that are consistent with their knowledge. Experts are harder to influence because they can support their beliefs. This showed that experts are immune to television news media priming. In the Krosnick and Kinder reading, it can be concluded that individuals with the least knowledge and least exposure show the largest priming effects. Therefore, the change in the president's support after the Iran Contra revelations might have been dominated by the least-informed. Findings which suggest that over time, change the popular approval and waning of presidential power may largely depend on the citizens who know the least.

The Effects of Televised Campaign Ads

Gerber, et al. (2011) carried out another research in which they wanted to find out whether the effects of televised campaign ads last longer. Television adverts tend to be inconsistent as time passes. For example, they could show a strong and significant effect one week, then smaller and ineffective in the other week and finally have no impact at all in the following weeks. Overall, the results show that although television ads come off as powerful, they, in fact, were short-lived. The popular belief is that even though the audience may forget the message, they might have learned and absorbed some information from the ads. This is, in fact, not true according to Gerber et al. The authors claim that the ads affect voters especially by priming them thus shifting the criteria by which they could have evaluated and judged the candidates. The ads also increased the importance the people had for certain issues that they used to evaluate candidates thereby not achieving enduring beliefs in them. The experiment was the first of its kind to try to estimate the priming effects of a large-scale media campaign and its effect on the competitiveness of the gubernatorial race.

Media Coverage and Presidential Evaluations

Miller and Krosnick (2000) show us that scholars have often presumed that when media pays attention to certain issues and policies, it increases the impact on the overall evaluations of the presidential performance. This is due to the fact that news coverage increases an individual's ability to access the belief from memory, automatically increasing the impact they have on the relevant judgments. The authors' research shows that the coverage of an issue by the media increases the ability to access the beliefs from memory but does not produce priming. Instead experts who trust that the media is informative and accurate believe that issues in the news are important matters of the nation, thereby influencing them to rely on the media during presidential evaluations. The authors conclude that news media priming does not come about because people have become victims of their minds but rather reflect the inferences made by credible sources of information from sophisticated citizens.

Implications of Priming

When studying the effects of priming, political communication scholars primarily focus on the most recent and frequency of the constructive use needed to access specific recognitions of priming paying little attention to spreading the activation of the related effects. We can conclude that Media's way of communicating issues in both ethical and moral terms can prime people to make proper evaluations about the integrity of political candidates and also to properly evaluate political issues ethically. Future results need to conceptualize priming in a broader way to consider both short-term and long-term pathways in memory. News might not necessarily tell us what to think, but it helps us to determine what we think about when an issue is being covered it does boost the impact on the performance of a candidate concerning that particular issue and acts as criteria for the evaluation of their overall performance.

The Positive Effects of Exposure to News Media

In conclusion, the study has shown that the positive effects of exposure to news media outweigh the negative. When people are exposed to television news media with high political content, they gain knowledge and participate more in voting drives. When individuals are exposed to less political content, they have little or no positive effects. A variety of media effect research has applied the priming effect including those that follow cognitive psychological paths by studying the priming effect of television violence about aggressive behavior and also the priming effect brought about by advertising recruitment posters.


"Experimental Demonstrations of the "Not-So-Minimal" Consequences of Television News Programs" Author(s): Shanto Iyengar, Mark D. Peters and Donald R. Kinder Source: The American Political Science Review, Vol. 76, No. 4 (Dec., 1982), pp. 848-858 Published by: American Political Science Association.

"Altering the Foundations of Support for the President Through Priming" Author(s): Jon A. Krosnick and Donald R. Kinder Source: The American Political Science Review, Vol. 84, No. 2 (Jun., 1990), pp. 497-512 Published by: American Political Science Association.

"How Large and Long-lasting are the Persuasive Effects of Televised Campaign Ads? Results from a Randomized Field Experiment" Author(s): Alan S. Gerber, James G. Gimpel, Donald P. Green and Daron R. Shaw Source: The American Political Science Review, Vol. 105, No. 1 (February 2011), pp. 135-150 Published by: American Political Science Association.

"News Media Impact on the Ingredients of Presidential Evaluations: Politically Knowledgeable Citizens are Guided by a Trusted Source" Author(s): Joanne M. Miller and Jon A. Krosnick Source: American Journal of Political Science, Vol.44, No.2 (April 2000), pp.301-315 Published by: Midwest Political Science Association.

April 19, 2023



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