Priming Theory

 What is priming? Explain the term scientifically.


What is Priming Theory?

If you have you ever heard a new word for the first time in your life and then suddenly noticed it popping up everywhere from the news to your grandmother’s dinner conversation, you know that the human brain can be primed to notice things that it ordinarily would completely overlook. The same thing happens when the press begins spending time on an issue that might ordinarily simmer on a back burner; once the issue becomes news, it tends to become relevant.

When the public begins to view candidates in light of a particular issue that has been brought up by the media even though it was not a consideration prior to its introduction, it is an example of the priming effect. For example, in spite of the fact that no one cared about whether the candidates recycled just a month earlier, once the issue of home recycling is brought to the forefront, it can have a huge impact in determining who wins an election. Further, the more coverage an issue receives, the more of an impact it has on the opinions the public forms about those at the center of the attention.


At its most powerful, those who subscribe to priming theory believe that the media has the power to control how audiences interpret new information. This is because they believe that humans filter new information through a filter formed partially of prior information. New information cannot be viewed outside the context of previous information. People who try to mold public opinion often attempt to do so by manipulating the information the public receives, most often by introducing information strategically to influence the way future information will be received. By emphasizing some issues and ignoring others, the media, in particular, may be able to determine which issues will have a bearing on an election and which will not.

Where Did the Theory Originate?

The concept of planting an idea into the minds of the people and allowing that idea to dominate all further debate is not new. The ancient Greek demagogue, Demosthenes, used it to paralyze the Athenian political machine, essentially handing the democracy over to the conquering armies of Alexander of Macedon. Cicero used it in Rome to manipulate juries and to drive a thorn deeply into the side of Julius Caesar. However, what had been considered simply crafty politics became theory in 1982, when Iyengar, Peters and Kinder studied the theory and gave it a name.

Now, as in the days of Demosthenes, priming is believed to work because members of the public have limited knowledge about politics, and they tend to focus selectively on portions of what they do know when they make voting decisions. They base their decisions upon the information that is in the forefront in their minds. Demosthenes knew that the issues he kept before the people in the days leading up to a vote would be the ones they would consider salient when making their decisions.

Modern Examples

Jacobs and Shapiro conducted an in-depth analysis of the 1960 Kennedy campaign for president and determined that it was a modern example of priming in action. The Kennedy campaign was the first to use public opinion surveys. Kennedy’s campaign managers kept up a continuous evaluation of the political climate in the nation, and attempted to influence it as well as respond to it. Based on their study of the campaign, Jacobs and Shapiro determined that priming can be a powerful political tool to influence voters’ assessments of candidates.

Iyengar and his associates also discovered a special way that television newscasts might be having an impact on presidential elections. By setting the agenda for an election campaign, the media also determine the criteria by which presidential candidates will be evaluated. We have already discussed this possibility in our two examples taken from the 1980 presi­dential election. By raising the hostage crisis situation on the public’s agenda right before the election, the media might have lowered the public’s evaluation of President Carter. Or by raising the Chappaquiddick issue, the media might have lowered the public’s evalua­tion of Ted Kennedy. Iyengar and his associates call this process priming. Priming is the process in which the media attend to some issues and not others and thereby alter the standards by which people evaluate election candidates.

The researchers found some evidence of priming in their experiments. Subjects in the experiments, in addition to the measures we have already discussed, also rated President Carter as to his performance in the three specific problem areas—defense, pollution, and inflation. They also gave general ratings of Carter’s overall performance, competence, and integrity. As predicted by the concept of priming, the correlation between the overall rating and the rating in a specific problem area was greater for respondents who saw coverage emphasizing that problem area than it was for respondents who saw coverage neglecting that problem area. For example, when respondents saw coverage emphasizing inflation, the correlation between Carter’s performance rating on inflation and his overall perfor­mance rating was .63. But when respondents saw coverage neglecting inflation, the corre­lation between Carter’s performance rating on inflation and his overall performance rating was .39.

In other words, respondents were evaluating President Carter in terms of topics they had seen emphasized in the news recently. This is a rather subtle but powerful way that agenda setting could be influencing our most important elections.

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