Nonconscious inclinations

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … repertoire of responses
  • Knowing is … responding to triggers
  • Learner is … a partly automatic actor
  • Learning is … changes in response patterns
  • Teaching is … preparing, alerting




Priming is said to occur when prior exposure to a stimulus or cluster of stimuli (e.g., an image, a smell, a phrase, an opinion, a social situation) influences one’s response to a later, related stimulus. Most often, Priming is experienced as a non-conscious prompting or inclination. For instance, reading about symptoms associated with a seasonal flu might prompt one to feel or manifest some of those symptoms, or discerning a specific accent might trigger judgements regarding a speaker’s politics or intelligence. Types of Priming include:
  • Repetition Priming – exposing the learner to a response sequence in advance in order to increase the speed of the responding while reducing response errors
  • Subliminal Priming – perceptions that do not bubble to the surface of conscious awareness but that nonetheless increase the likelihood of influencing one’s thoughts and/or actions
Priming has been shown to operate on the perceptual, conceptual, affective, social, and cultural levels – and thus plays significant roles in defining what one notices, prefers, interprets, and avoids. Associated notions include:
  • Preattentive Processing (Preattentive Analysis; Preperceptual Processing) – cognitive activity that precedes and enables acts of conscious perception. It is thought that this activity involves the parallel and multi-leveled activation of neuronal networks associated with relevant features of the phenomenon perceived.


Original interest in Priming was situated among two distinct groups: researchers in the psychology of learning, most of whom aligned with Behaviorisms, and researchers in the psychology of personality, who tended to align with Psychoanalytic Theories. As might be expected, interpretations of Priming among the former leaned toward matters of conditioning and related mechanical processes, whereas interpretations among the latter foregrounded the psychological significance and social impact of implicit associations and their consequent biases. These roots and their disparate interests continue to be represented – with marked increased interest in the latter over recent decades, especially among researchers interested in cultural origins and impacts of prominent implicit associations.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences


Status as a Theory of Learning

Priming is appropriately described as a principle of learning – and it is one that has been incorporated (or, at least, that can be incorporated) into almost every theory of learning that acknowledges automatic and/or non-conscious aspects of perception and cognition.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

While in no way a theory of teaching, Priming has been incorporated into many pedagogical frames in the forms of setting learner expectations, interrupting likely assumptions, alerting learners to implicit biases, and so on.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Priming refers to a category of phenomena rather than a theoretical perspective, so while it is well researched and empirically validated, it is better considered an aspect of other scientific theories than a theory in its own right.


  • Preattentive Processing (Preattentive Analysis; Preperceptual Processing)
  • Repetition Priming
  • Semantic Priming

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Priming” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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