Cognitive Psychology Of Priming Research Paper

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Priming refers to the phenomenon whereby the identification of a word or an object can be enhanced either by the presentation of a related stimulus or by a prior processing episode involving that word or object. In the case of priming with a related stimulus, enhancement is assessed relative to identification performance following an unrelated stimulus or some neutral stimulus. Priming effects are used to support inferences about the time course of component processes that contribute to stimulus identification and about the structure of knowledge representation. Priming induced by an earlier processing episode involving the target is referred to as repetition priming. Enhancement due to repetition priming is assessed relative to performance on targets that were not included in any earlier processing episode. Repetition priming effects provide evidence regarding the influence of memory on skilled task performance.

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1. Priming with Related Stimuli

The widespread use of related primes to examine word and object identification has its origins both in the classic era of verbal learning and in the more recent study of visual attention.

Experiments on verbal learning tasks such as memorizing word lists showed that prior learning of a target word’s associate (e.g., joy is an associate of happy) improved subsequent learning of that target (Cofer 1967). These early studies foreshadowed some of the well-established aspects of priming obtained in more recent research (e.g., priming dissipates rapidly over time).

In the visual attention domain, it has been proposed that presentation of a prime stimulus that is of the same type as the target could benefit the processing of the target through two mechanisms (Posner and Snyder 1975). First, the prime automatically can activate the pathway used in processing the target. Second, the observer can be induced consciously to attend to activation produced by the prime, creating an expectancy and amplifying the benefit of the prime but also creating a cost if the prime is unrelated to the target and the expectancy is not met.

1.1 Semantic Priming

Building on the seminal work of Meyer and Schvaneveldt (1971), who provided one of the first demonstrations that a pair of semantically related words (e.g., nurse–doctor) was identified faster than a pair of unrelated words, early investigations of semantic priming examined automatic and conscious contributions to priming. These studies were motivated in part by the idea that semantically related concepts could automatically activate one another (Collins and Loftus 1975). This automatic spreading activation was the hypothesized basis for the facilitative effect of presenting a prime prior to identifying a semantically related target word. Experiments demonstrating this effect typically employed a word identification task such as lexical decision, in which word and nonword targets are presented and the observer is required to classify each target as a word or nonword. Accuracy in this task is high, so the aspect of performance that is of greatest interest is the time taken to make a response. The benefit of a related prime is revealed by a shorter response latency relative to when a neutral prime such as XXX is used.

By varying the time interval between the onset of the prime stimulus and the subsequent onset of the target (stimulus onset asynchrony, or SOA) it was shown that automatic activation of a target word by a semantically related prime can occur within 250 ms of the onset of the prime (Neely 1977). At an SOA of 400 ms or more, however, not only was there a facilitative priming effect, there also was an interference effect, such that relative to the neutral prime condition, a longer response latency was found when an unrelated prime was used. This pattern of benefit and cost suggested that in the earliest stages of processing a prime word, semantic information related to that prime was automatically activated. Shortly thereafter, attention was directed to the activated information allowing the benefit of activation to be maintained but also leading to a cost if the target was unrelated to the expected domain of semantic knowledge.

1.2 Models Of Semantic Priming

The idea that semantic priming may be amplified by conscious attention, perhaps owing to expectations about what related target word might follow a particular prime, is generally accepted. In contrast, however, the proposal that activation spreads automatically from the prime concept to semantically related concepts in semantic memory has been challenged. One type of alternative theory, compoundcue theory, proposes that rather than activation spreading from the prime, the prime stimulus combines with the target to form a compound cue that is matched with the contents of long-term memory (Ratcliff and McKoon 1988). Related prime–target pairs are likely to be represented in memory owing to a prior history of co-occurrence, so this compound cue has a high degree of familiarity and permits a relatively rapid lexical decision. Unrelated prime–target pairs have lower familiarity and more time is needed to make a lexical decision. This theory correctly predicts that presenting an unrelated stimulus between the prime and target eliminates the priming effect.

Whittlesea and Jacoby (1990) extended the compound-cue idea by proposing that processing a target can induce automatic retrieval of a related prime event, producing an integrated or compound prime–target cue. They demonstrated that forming a prime–target compound is situation dependent. When a target is degraded (e.g., by using alternating case: dOcToR), the prime is more likely to form a compound with the target because independent identification of the target is more difficult. The result is a larger priming effect with degraded targets.

A second alternative account of semantic priming derives from neural network models of word identification. In many of these models, knowledge about words is represented by a pattern of activation across a collection of processing units. It is the instantiation of this pattern in the network that supports a response to a word target on tasks such as lexical decision. Related words have similar patterns of activation. Presentation of a related prime moves the network into a pattern similar to that associated with the target, giving the network a head start at instantiating the target’s pattern of activation, thereby creating a priming effect. As in the compound-cue theory, presenting an unrelated word between the prime and target is expected to reduce or eliminate the priming effect, although neural network theory attributes this reduction to disruption of the pattern of activation created by the prime (Masson 1995).

Although semantic priming can be disrupted by an intervening unrelated word, prime events appear to modify long-term memory in a manner that supports semantic priming even when a period of minutes intervenes between prime and target. The survival of semantic priming across such time intervals requires that the task performed on the target demand substantial semantic processing, such as deciding whether the target represents a living or a nonliving object (Becker et al. 1997). A neural network model developed by Becker et al. accounts for this effect by assuming that the prime event modifies connection weights in the network to favor related words, which is equivalent to modifying long-term memory.

Recent work on semantic priming, then, is largely consistent with the idea that short and long timescale priming effects arise from different mechanisms: transient patterns of activation or compound cueing of memory in the former case and incremental learning in the latter.

1.3 Phonological And Other Forms Of Priming

The role of phonological recoding in the reading of words has been studied by presenting phonologically related primes with target words. Perfetti and Bell (1991) used nonword primes that were phonologically related to target words (baik–bake) and control primes that were graphemically but not phonologically related to the targets (bawk–bake). In this paradigm, the target word was presented briefly (about 15–30 ms) and was followed by the prime, which served as a backward mask and was in view for a similarly brief time. Finally, a pattern mask consisting of a row of Xs was presented. Subjects were more accurate in their report of the target word when phonologically related primes were used, even though the primes were usually not consciously perceived. Phonological information derived from the prime can thus contribute to the process of identifying a target. Results such as this one, which have been replicated using Hebrew and Chinese materials, suggest that phonological recoding of words is the default processing mode in reading.

Other types of primes bearing various relations to target words, such as orthographic (cord–card ) or morphological similarity (swim–swam), have also been used to determine whether these knowledge sources play a role in reading. Related primes of these types usually improve performance on target identification tasks relative to primes that bear no relation to the target, implicating these sources of knowledge in reading. In addition, priming paradigms have been used to study clinical populations in an effort to understand the knowledge retrieval processes associated with particular disorders. For example, semantic priming of alcohol-related words is enhanced among subjects who suffer from alcohol dependence. Medications have been shown to reduce this priming effect, suggesting that such interventions are capable of reducing the retrieval of alcohol-related memories.

2. Repetition Priming

Stimulus identification can be enhanced not only by priming with a related item but also by an earlier presentation of the target itself. Repetition priming of words or objects has been demonstrated in experiments in which a preliminary presentation of an item is followed minutes, hours, or even days later by a repetition of that same item. Improved processing typically is evidenced either by a reduction in the time taken to identify the item or increased accuracy in its identification. In a particularly striking demonstration of this phenomenon, Kolers (1976) showed that even when over 1 year intervened between the first and second reading of text passages presented in inverted typography, subjects were able to read repeated passages faster than ones they had not read earlier. An important aspect of repetition priming that separates it from many other studies of memory is the fact that subjects are often unaware that their performance is being influenced by prior experience with the target stimulus.

2.1 Long-Term Priming

The fact that repetition priming can persist over relatively long periods of time provides an important theoretical constraint. The proposal that repetition priming results from sustained activation of the mental representation of a target item has been criticized on the grounds that it would be implausible for activation to be sustained over long periods of time. Moreover, repetition priming effects involving novel stimuli such as nonwords and novel shapes indicate that activation of pre-existing mental representations is not a necessary condition for priming.

A more plausible account proposes that a representation of the first encounter with an item is encoded into long-term memory and is recruited, usually without conscious intention, when that item is repeated on a later occasion. To the extent that the processing operations performed on the item are similar on the two occasions, recruitment of memory for the original processing episode will benefit current task performance—a principle known as transfer appropriate processing.

Because many of the tasks used to study repetition priming involve the identification of a stimulus, perceptual operations that support identification have been of particular interest in this work. Consistent with the transfer-appropriate processing principle, it has been shown that altering the perceptual characteristics of an item between its first and second presentations (e.g., spoken to printed presentation, or male to female voice) reduces or eliminates repetition priming.

The perceptual specificity of repetition priming has also been taken as support for the proposal that this form of priming is mediated by a neurologically distinct memory system that represents perceptual forms. This memory system is assumed to be in-dependent of other memory systems, such as the one responsible for supporting conscious recollection of prior episodes. The independent system assumption receives support from the finding that amnesic subjects who are severely impaired on tasks requiring conscious recollection nevertheless show normal repetition priming on various tasks.

Although the processing and memory systems accounts of repetition priming constitute potentially opposing views of memory organization and function, these two approaches are seen by many researchers as complementary (Roediger 1990). In particular, consideration of the memory systems account has encouraged the integration of informative findings from cognitive neuroscience studies, particularly those involving cases of amnesia, into Behavioral theories of priming.

2.2 Masked Priming

A second form of repetition priming appears to be short-lived. In masked repetition priming, a prime is presented briefly (e.g., 60 ms) and is both preceded and followed by a mask. The second mask is in fact the target item that the subject is required to identify. On repetition priming trials, the target is identical with the prime, except for a change in case (house–HOUSE), whereas on unrelated trials the prime is unrelated to the target. Presentation of a repetition prime enables subjects to identify the target item more quickly or accurately. This kind of repetition priming has been dissociated from long-term repetition priming in two ways. First, it appears to dissipate within less than 1 s if a delay is introduced between the prime and target. Second, masked repetition priming is equally strong for common, high-frequency words and for uncommon, low-frequency words, whereas in long-term priming low-frequency words show a larger priming effect than high-frequency words.

Dissociations between masked and long-term repetition priming have supported the view that whereas the latter type of priming may be due to a form of episodic memory, the former is due to temporary activation of lexical knowledge (Forster and Davis 1984). The apparent lack of masked priming for nonwords in the lexical decision task also is consistent with this proposal. More recent evidence, however, has challenged two of these dissociations. First, there are cases in which masked repetition priming is stronger for low-frequency words, just as in long-term priming. Second, masked repetition priming of nonwords can occur when the experimental design allows subjects to overcome the tendency to classify fluently processed repetition-primed nonwords as words.

Similarities between masked and long-term repetition priming encourage the view that both phenomena may reflect the operation of a form of episodic memory. Presentation of a prime is assumed to create an episodic representation that can later be recruited as a resource to assist in the identification of that item on a subsequent presentation. This interpretation of repetition priming fits with the retrieval interpretation of semantic priming described above and promises to provide a fruitful framework for interpreting priming effects in general.

2.3 Negative Priming

There is an interesting circumstance under which repetition of an item can, paradoxically, interfere with task performance. Negative priming arises when a pair of items is presented on a prime trial, and another pair is presented on the subsequent, probe trial. On each trial, the subject is cued to respond to one member of the pair and to ignore the other (e.g., a drawing of a dog in red and a drawing of a violin in green; name the green item). If the ignored item on the prime trial then appears as the cued item on the probe trial, a longer response time is observed than when unrelated items appear on both trials (Tipper 1985). One interpretation of this result is that the act of ignoring an item on the prime trial inhibits the mental representation of that item, rendering it more difficult to identify it on the subsequent probe trial.

The inhibition interpretation of negative priming has prompted some researchers to apply the technique as a measure of inhibitory processing in studies of special populations such as older adults and clinical groups (e.g., individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder). These applications appear to be premature, however, given recent evidence for an interpretation of negative priming that does not involve inhibition.

On this alternative view, negative priming does not result from selecting against an item on the prime trial. Rather, the appearance of the target on the probe trial automatically retrieves memory for its appearance on the prime trial as in semantic and repetition priming. Because the target must be selected over a distracter item, however, the subject must discriminate between the current perceptual representation of the target and the retrieved memory representation of the target’s appearance on the prime trial, among other events. It is this discrimination process that slows responding and produces negative priming (Milliken et al. 1998). Two important findings support this proposal. First, negative priming is found even when a single stimulus that requires no response is presented on the prime trial, eliminating the need for any inhibition of or selection against that stimulus. Second, when no selection is required on the probe trial, negative priming is not obtained. Thus, in keeping with the memory retrieval account, it is selection on the probe trial, not the prime trial, that induces negative priming.

3. Conclusion

Although the initial theoretical frameworks for understanding priming with related stimuli and repetition priming advocated the idea that priming reflects the relationship between stable mental structures such as a mental lexicon or semantic memory and the activation of those representations, an alternative class of theories is emerging in both domains. These alternative theories emphasize the role of specific episodes in modifying memory representations and in constructing resources that are recruited when a target event is to be identified. The emergence of this new class of theories holds significant promise for the development of a unified account of how memory and perception interact to enable skilled identification of words and objects.


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