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.
General aggression model
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
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.
Priming isn’t always unintentional, as Jacobs and Shapiro demonstrate in a quantitative and historical analysis of John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign. Their research extends the application of priming theory from its original focus of how individuals form attitudes and make decisions to the study of candidate behavior. This new approach, they say, "changes the analytic focus from unintentional priming to intentional priming, namely, the deliberate strategies that candidates pursue to influence voters". Priming can be an effective campaign strategy for presidential candidates, the authors indicate, by a process of carefully calculated uses of public opinion on policy issues to influence voters’ standards for assessing the candidates’ attributes. In this study, the authors focus on the 1960 election because innovative public opinion surveys were incorporated into Kennedy’s campaign strategy that enabled him to use position taking to shape his image. Their research was based on primary evidence drawn from archival records and interviews, as well as a combination of interpretative and quantitative analysis. They found that a relationship exists 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. Though this study does neglect questions concerning how and why real politicians use polling results to prime voters, Jacobs and Shapiro effectively demonstrate that the priming process is powerful enough to be used intentionally by political candidates as a tool to influence public opinion during election campaigns.
In Iyengar, Peters, and Kinder's 1982 study of priming, they set out to determine what effect intentional priming might have on the public's evaluation of president Jimmy Carter. Their hypothesis stated that making certain political topics salient through primetime media, such as defense or spending, would cause viewers to evaluate president Carter based on said topics. The experiment's results demonstrated the phenomena of agenda-setting and priming. First, Iyengar et al. found evidence of agenda-setting in the positive correlation between exposure to a given political topic and its importance when evaluating the president. They then found that said standards affected the actual evaluation of the president's performance, demonstrating priming. This experiment points to the potential of news media to direct the public's attention and perception of political figures, though the researchers also indicate that subjects with higher self-reported levels of knowledge of politics showed decreased effects of priming. This lead Iyengar's team to the conclusion that priming has varied implications depending on an individual's given knowledge prior to political news media exposure.
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- Severin & Tankard, 1997
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- Jacobs and Shapiro (1994)
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