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Priming (media)

The priming theory states that media images stimulate related thoughts in the minds of audience members. For example, if a person were to see a cartoon character play a trick that inflicts pain or injury on another character, without permanent consequences, it could make that person more likely to repeat the violent action in real life.

Grounded in cognitive psychology, the theory of media priming is derived from the associative network model of human memory, in which an idea or concept is stored as a node in the network and is related to other ideas or concepts by semantic paths. Priming refers to the activation of a node in this network, which may serve as a filter, an interpretive frame, or a premise for further information processing or judgment formation.

The general aggression model (GAM) integrates the priming theory with the social learning theory to describe how previously learned violent behavior may be triggered by thoughts, emotions, or physiological states provoked by media exposure. However, the GAM has come under considerable criticism in recent years regarding underlying and unproven assumptions and poor data support for the theory.

Political media 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". A number of studies have demonstrated that there is a dimension of powerful media effects that goes beyond agenda setting. In 1982, Iyengar, Peters, and Kinder first identified this added dimension as the “priming effect.” The theory is founded on the assumption that people do not have elaborate knowledge about political matters and do not take into account all of what they do know when making political decisions — they must consider what more readily comes to mind. Through drawing attention to some aspects of politics at the expense of others, the media might help to set the terms by which political judgments are reached, including evaluations of political figures.

It should be noted that priming is often discussed in tandem with agenda-setting theory. The reason for this association is two-fold. The first, per Hastie & Park, is that both theories revolve around salient information recall, operating on the idea that people will use information that is most readily available when making decisions. The second, per Iyengar and Kinder, is that priming is latter part of a two-fold process with agenda-setting that takes place over time. Once agenda setting has made an issue salient, priming is the process by which "mass media can... shape the considerations that people take into account when making judgements about political candidates or issues". In short, both theories point to ease of accessibility of information in one's mind but priming is something that can occur over a period of time after exposure to a given media segment.

  • Bruce, V., Carson, D., Burton, A.M., & Kelly, S. Prime time advertisements: repetition priming from faces seen on recruitment posters. Memory and Cognition, 26, 502-515.
  • Bushman, B.J. (1998). Priming effects of media violence on the accessibility of aggressive constructs in memory. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24, 537-546.
  • Domke, D., Shah, D.V., & Wackman, D.B. (1998). Media priming effects: Accessibility, association, and activation. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 10, 51-75.
  • Goidel, R.K., Shields, T.G., & Peffley, M. (1997). Priming theory and RAS models: toward an integrated perspective of media influence. American Politics Quarterly, 25, 287-318.
  • Hetherington, M.J. (1996). The media’s role in forming voters’ national economic evaluations in 1992. American Journal of Political Science, 40, 372-395.


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