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Theories of Mass Communication: Priming

Anshu Joshi |

It is a well-researched and proven fact that the kind of programmes and news, which we watch or read, impact our behaviour. Also, we get a sudden glimpse of the same while facing a similar situationto take a decision. Ever wondered why it happens?

Moreover, it is related to a very significant theory of Mass Communication. It is known as Priming, which can be elucidated and understood by first of all considering its roots in Psychology.

It is taught in Psychology that “Priming is an implicit memory effect in which exposure to one stimulus influences the response to another stimulus. The seminal experiments of Meyer and Schvaneveldt in the early 1970s led to the flowering of research on priming of many sorts.” 1

Hence the first important point that we have to take in to account is that Priming is related to our memory and entire thought process. How it works? “Priming can occur following perceptual, semantic, or conceptual stimulus repetition. For example, if a person reads a list of words including the word ‘table’, and is later asked to complete a word starting with ‘tab’, the probability that he or she will answer table is greater.”2

In Mass Communication too, with the same understanding and impact, Priming works. Basically, because of the way our nervous system works, associated thoughts generate in our minds and strike under similar situations. Priming explains how media uses this psychological characteristic for influencing people without even letting them know and affect their decisions.

The second significant point is related to its history. The concept of Priming is ages old. “The ancient Greek demagogue, Demosthenes, used it to paralyse 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.” 3However, Priming as a theory of Mass Communication was put forward by Iyengar, Peters, and Kender in 1982. This theory explains how media affects people’s minds. “People take decisions based on the presumptions, which are already stored in their memory. The memories are stored as nodes, which are interconnected well, and mostly act as a frame of reference for the decisions that people make. Priming enables the audiences to evaluate the situation and to conclude how effective the media has been in order to make a decision by providing a frame of reference.

Thus media influences people to make judgement or a decision. Agenda Setting brings out only the importance of the issue, but Priming offers explanation on how the information from the media is stored in the human mind, and how it influences them in making decisions. Media affects the judgement or behaviour of people by stimulating the associating thoughts, which are caused due to the mental relationships created inside the memory.”4

We can also understand this theory by considering a very simple example. Most of the kids watch their favourite cartoon shows every day. Eventually, it can be observed in most of them that,they start behaving like their favourite character of the show. Their way of speaking, preference of clothes, actions and so on, all get highly influenced by the particular character. They also behave similar to the character in situations that they have already watched. This is the priming effect on their behaviour by a particular programme. That is why mostly psychoanalysts suggest limiting this activity among children as a memory is created and stored in their mindsforever based on what they watch regularly. Hence, they are also suggested to be refrained from watching violent programmes or gory scenes.

Similarly, we can consider another example. Many a times, criminals confess that they planned and committed the crime under the influence of a particular programme containing violent content. In case of an unplanned, spontaneous crime too, a particular related memory helps the criminal in committing the crime. Hence, in both cases, planned or unplanned, our stored memories play a significant role in making our decision. And, according to the theory of Priming, Media plays a critical role in developing its intended memories in people’s minds.

The third and very important point about Priming is its applicability in context of politics, where media plays an imperative role in influencing people by showing them the selected or biased content. We all know that not everybody is well versed with comprehensive political knowledge. We also know that people depend on media for getting remaining knowledge or validating their assumptions about a political activity or a person. Here media uses Priming as a shrewd way of influencing people by sharing very selected and planned chunk of information.

During elections, this becomes even more crucial in making and amending people’s choice. It is like setting an agenda; however, unlike Agenda Setting, in Priming, the thinking or the decision is conscripted into people’s minds by sharing the choicest content of media.

Apart from its conventional purpose to influence people’s decisions, Priming is also used by the media when it intends to shift the focus of people from any issue. For example, in case of a domestic issue, it may divert the focus of people by broadcasting or publishing some international issue of concern, and set the memories accordingly.

Priming isfrequently discussed and compared with Agenda Setting theory. What is the relationship between the two? “The relationship is two-fold. The first, as per Hastie and Park, is that both theories revolve around striking information recall, operating on the idea that people will use information that is most readily available when making decisions.

The second, as per Iyengar and Kinder, is that Priming is latter part of a two-fold process with Agenda Setting that takes place over time. Once the agenda is set, priming is the process by which mass media can shape the decisions of people about political candidates or issues.” 5

The fourth point is related to the nature of Priming. Is it intentional or unintentional? “Priming is not always unintentional, as Jacobs and Shapiro demonstrated in their quantitative and historical analysis of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign. Their research extended the application of Priming theory from its original focus of how individuals form attitudes and make decisions to the study of candidate’sbehaviour. The believed that Priming can be an effective campaign strategy for the presidential candidates. The candidates can use deliberate strategies to influence voters involving calculated uses of public opinion on policy for assessing the candidates’ attributes.

During their research, they also found that a relationship existed between Kennedy’s positions on policy matters and results from his private public opinion surveys. His campaign combined image building with position taking on issues that responded to perceived public opinion. Although this studyneglected questions concerning how and why real politicians use polling results to prime voters, Jacobs and Shapiro effectively demonstrated that the priming process is powerful enough to be used intentionally by political candidates as a tool to influence public opinion during election campaigns.”6

Priming is considered as an influential concept in Mass Communication. However, there are scholars and thinkers who carry a different view about the effectiveness of this theory. For example, Pan and Kosicki, after completing their study on the effectiveness of this theory, concluded that any Priming effect of media is too weak in relation to the other influences to be demonstrated. 7

Despite such difference in opinion, the theory holds a great significance for the students of Mass Communication and journalists as it helps them in understanding the psychological process through which an everlasting effect on audiences can be created. It can also be learnt specially in context of political coverage to influence people’s decisions especially during elections.


  1. “Priming”, Wikipedia Website, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Priming_(psychology)
  2. “Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology” by Kolb & Whishaw, 2003, pp. 453-454, 457
  3. “What is Priming”, Communication Studies Website, http://www.communicationstudies.com/communication-theories/priming
  4. “Priming”, Communicationtheory.org Website, http://communicationtheory.org/priming/
  5. “Framing, Agenda Setting, and Priming: The Evolution of Three Media Effects Models” by Scheufele & Tewksbury, Journal of Communication, 2007, Vol.57, pp. 9-20
  6. “Priming”, Wikipedia Website,https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Priming_(media)
  7. “McQuail’s Mass Communication Theory”, by Denis McQuail, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2010, p. 514


About the Author: Anshu Joshi is a doctorate from School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi and worked on issues related to terrorism, bioterrorism and role of media in creating a comprehensive BW defence mechanism. She is a political analyst and writer.


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