Chapter 10- Temporary Accessibility/Priming Effects- Assimilation and Contrast In
Many of the behaviours we observe in ourselves and in others can be placed into more than one
Many of the social behaviors we observe are open to multiple interpretations and can be categorized in
alternative ways with equal likelihood.
The interpretation that is chosen can be determined simply by whatever applicable concept happens to be
accessible at the moment.
The interpretation of behaviour is determined by accessible constructs because:
1. Behaviour is assimilated into a perceptually ready interpretation
2. Behaviour is contrasted with a perceptually ready interpretation.
Chapter’s theme the impact of information that is momentarily brought to mind, that is temporarily
accessible, it is broken into parts:
a. The circumstances in which accessible constructs have an impact on judgment
b. The type of impact accessible constructs have
c. The processing mechanisms responsible for brings this subtle impact
Priming effects or accessibility effects- the use of a triggered concept.
Priming: The Temporary Accessibility of Mental Constructs
The retrieval of a concept from memory, even if a person is not aware that the concept is being retrieved
brings to the concept a heightened state of accessibility or perceptual readiness.
The momentary charge attained by a concept being triggered in memory is not permanent.
The strength of that charge is dependent on how recently the concept in question has been encountered,
how strongly the stimulus can trigger the concept and if the charge is strong enough, the concept has
attained sufficient level of activation/accessibility that it is said to have reached a response threshold.
However, even if the charge has not accumulated to the threshold level, it still has an impact.
Priming- triggering a concept in the moment
Prime- the stimulus that causes the concept to be triggered.
The Priming of a Construct: Producing Temporary Accessibility
What is accessible in your mind is partly determined by what you have been exposed to in your
Not only is the concept that you have seen or heard triggered but the activation spreads to related concepts,
making these concepts accessible as well.
Srull and Wyer (1980):
o Exposure to a stimulus primes a category in the mind that represents the stimulus in long-term
o Participants were exposed to stimuli meant to eventually prime the concept of “hostility.”
o Some were exposed to 15 stimuli and some 35.
o They were then asked to read a description about the behaviour of a person and make a judgment
o People were more ready to describe the behaviour as “hostile” when they had been primed,
especially when they had been exposed to the prime 35 times vs. 15.
The accessibility of a concept is determined by exposure not only to that specific concept, but also to words
or events associated with that concept.
As one concept is charged, that charge spreads along the associative network.
1 Information available in memory has now attained a heightened state of accessibility even if it has not been
directly primed by a stimulus in the environment.
o Participants were asked to decide whether a string of letters was actually a word- lexical decision
task and these letter strings were preceded by words. (Ex: bread followed by butter)
o The more accessible the first concept, the easier and faster it would be to respond to the second
o When responses to the lexical decision task were called for at very fast speeds, they were faster to
respond to the related concepts than the unrelated concepts.
o Conclusion: The thoughts that come to mind when we see a person should include a whole host of
behaviours and traits linked to that person.
Priming in Everyday Life
Moskowtiz and Roman (1992):
o Day-to-day inferences about others operate as primes.
o The snap judgments people make very quickly about others- the spontaneous trait inferences (STIs),
serve to activate or make accessible the concepts that have been inferred.
o STI- an inference formed without a perceiver’s awareness or intent, which explains behaviour in
terms of traits self generated primes.
o Participants were “primed” and in another “unrelated” task, their evaluations of a new person were
o Some participants read a sentence that implied that trait “persistence” and others “stubborn.”
o Priming evidence was found, because people primed with persistence described the person of the
next task as persistent and people primed with stubborn described the person as stubborn.
Seeing images of people and actually meeting people from a particular group can lead the concepts
associated with that group to attain heightened accessibility.
Fitzsimons, Chartrand, Fitzsimons (2003)
o Illustrated the power of images as primes, showing that pictures of pets trigger the concepts
associated with a given animal.
o Ex: dogs are associated with the concept of loyalty.
Another way in which a concept becomes accessible in life is by trying not to think of a concept:
o Examples: dieting- constantly thinking about food
o Austin Powers’- He can’t not think about the mole on the person’s face
o A failed relationships- always thinking about the ex
Wegner and Erber (1992):
o Thought suppression- attempting not to think about a concept, requires one to actually hold the
unwanted thought in the unconscious mind in order to prevent it from entering consciousness.
Often it doesn’t matter how the concepts are made accessible, as long as they attain a heighted stage of
Retrieval and Accessibility
When we perceive or think about a concept/person/object, the act of focusing attention requires that we
understand, label and categorize what we have focused on.
Exposure to a concept leads automatically to the retrieval of the concept, and associated concepts from
Whichever construct or associated is retrieved faster than others is what becomes accessible and determines
the response a person elicits.
Temporary Accessibility- when we retrieve a concept from memory through having recently been exposed
to a stimulus associated with that concept.
Types of Temporary Accessibility
2 A wide range of concepts and constructs can be primed:
Automatic activation of affect/attitude accessibility- occurs when the presence of an object leads to the
activation of positive or negative evaluative responses that are linked to the object.
If an attitude is accessible, one should be faster to respond to a new target that has similar valence.
Chen and Bargh (1999):
o If a positive attitude is triggered, then people should be faster to move toward a positive stimulus
and if a negative attitude is triggered, they should be faster to move away from a negative stimulus.
o Pulling something toward the self is associated with liking things.
o Pushing something away is associated with disliking things.
o Arm flexion- response compatible with a positive attitude.
o Arm extension- response compatible with a negative attitude.
o Participants responded faster to positive words when asked to flex the arm but responded faster to
negative words when asked to move the lever through arm extension.
Roskos-Ewoldsen and Fazio (1992):
o The stronger an attitude toward an object, the more likely that object was to capture attention when
briefly flashed at people as part of a larger stimulus display.
Bargh, Chaiken, Govender and Pratto (1992):
o Any object triggers an evaluation, regardless of the strength of the attitude.
Emotions can also be made accessible, and the accessibility of these emotions can have an unrecognized
impact on impression formation.
Niedenthal, Halberstadt and Setterlund (1997):
o They exposed participants to word lists that made emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger and
o People’s reaction time in determining whether a letter string was a word was faster when the word
was compatible with the emotion that had been primed.
o The increased accessibility of an emotion spreads to concepts associated with these emotions.
A goal, once triggered remains accessible even after people stop consciously trying to regulate the goal.
Chartrand and Bargh (1996):
o Goals can be implicitly activated and are capable of directing cognition.
o Activated goals exert the same effects regardless of the manner in which they are triggered.
o If a pattern of cognitive responding on a task is known to be an effect of having an explicit goal,
then the same goal triggered implicitly should have the same effects on cognitive responding.
o They primed goals through a sentence completion task and then examined the effect of having been
exposed to goal-relevant words on their information-processing strategies.
o The behaviors of a person were presented to subjects in the form of a list.
o Later on, there was a surprise re call test.
o Recall for the information was better when participants were asked to form an impression than when
they were explicitly asked to remember the information.
o Participants with primed impression formation goals had higher clustering scores and recalled a
greater number of behaviors during the recall test.
Bargh and Barndollar (1996):
o Goals were activated through word puzzles containing words related to either achievement or
o The subject’s behaviour with a partner was examined, but little did they know the partner was
actually a confederate who was told to do poorly on the task.
3 o Participants exposed to achievement goals first were more achievement oriented and performed
better than the partner, and those exposed to affiliation goals spend more time helping the other
Higgins, Roney, Crow and Hymes (1994):
o A strategy, “regulatory focus” for pursuing a goal can also be triggered.
o Promotion focus- a strategy that regulates goal pursuit through a focus on approaching a desired
o Prevention focus- a strategy focused on avoiding an undesired state.
o These 2 focuses can have the same goal, but just framed in terms of either approach or avoidance.
o They think that whether you go with an approach or avoidance regulatory focus will alter how you
go about pursuing the goal.
Forster et al (1998):
o They used a priming procedure to temporarily trigger either promotion focus or prevention focus in
order to facilitate responses that were compatible with their regulatory focus.
o Subjects had to pursue a very easy goal- they were asked to press a button.
o They were asked to press the button either by arm extension or by arm flexion. (Like Chen and
o People with the promotion focus pressed the button with greater force when flexing an arm and
people with a prevention focus pressed the button harder when they extended an arm.
The concept of mindset was introduced by the Wurzburg school to explain the fact that asking people so
solve a specific task created a relative cognitive orientation that facilitated solving the task at hand, but
hampered solving unrelated tasks.
Higgins and Chaires (1980):
o Mindsets can be made accessible and influence subsequent information processing.
o Interrelational constructs- the types of relationships between objects/people that are created when
we use words such as “or” versus “and.”
o They gave subjects a list of objects and their containers as part of a memory task.
o Half the subjects saw a list with phrases like “carton of eggs” and the other half saw phrases such as
“carton and eggs”
o Subjects then performed the Duncker candle problem- shown objects- a box of thumbtacks, a book
of matches and a candle and are told to affix the candle to a wall in a way that the candle burns but
doesn’t drop wax on the table or floor.
o The priming of the different mindsets facilitates performance on this task by promoting the ability to
see the tacks and box as separate entities.
o People primed with “and” were more likely so solve the task because it created a mindset that
promoted thinking about objects as separate units.
Gollwitzer, Heckhausen and Steller (1990):
o There are unique mindsets associated with how people go about pursuing their goals and they can
also be primed.
o Deliberative mindset- people are evaluating and selecting a goal from among many alternative goals
that could be pursued at any given point in time.
o Implemental mindset- people are concerned with specific planning on how to pursue a chosen goal.
o 1 task- subjects were given either kind of mindset.
o Deliberative mindset was primed by asking people to weigh the pros and cons of initiating action
regarding an unresolved personal problem.
o Implementation mindset was primed by asking people to plan the implementation of a chosen
o 2nd task- subjects were asked to complete half finished fairy tales.
4 o The mindset they were primed with determined what kind of actions their main character took part
o Other mindsets include: accuracy motivation mindset, a comparison mindset, initiative mindsets,
The Decay of Temporary Accessibility
o Accessible constructs have an impact on how fast people notice related words a quarter of a second
later concepts can be made accessible.
Higgins, Bargh and Lombardi (1985):
o Excitation Transmission Model- the accessibility of a construct can be charged to various degrees
and the length of time which accessible constructs can have an impact on judgment depends on how
strongly the activated concept is.
o The time it takes to retrieve a concept from memory and be able to apply it to judging some
stimulus is directly linked to how strongly activated that concept is.
o A stronger prime will result in a larger degree of excitation and therefore a longer lasting influence.
Recency of Concept Activation
Srull and Wyer (1979):
o The amount of excitation or accessibility of a concept is partly determined by how much time has
elapsed since the priming event was encountered.
o Concepts recently primed are more accessible than those primed earlier.
o Activation fades, as the stimulus that triggered the concept is no longer a recent event.
o Subjects read sets of 4 words that did not form a grammatically correct sentence and their task was
to take 3 or 4 words from a given set and use them to form a correct sentence.
o They completed 30 sentences like this, 20% of them were related to kindness.
o Subjects were then asked to make a judgment of a person whose behaviour was known to be
ambiguous with regard to kindness.
o The time interval for making this judgment varied from making an immediate judgment, to waiting
1 hour to waiting 24 hours.
o The accessibility of the kindness prime only seemed to be strong enough to influence judgment
when it was made immediately.
Frequency of Concept Activation
The amount of excitation and the duration of the accessibility are connected not only with what concept has
recently been encountered but also with how often it is encountered.
The more frequently one encounters the primed concept- the stronger the accessibility and the longer the
duration of its heightened accessibility.
Srull and Wyer’s experiment continued:
o Some participants read 30 items that were primed with kindness either 80% or 20% of the time.
o Some read 60 items that were primed with kindness either 80% or 20% of the time
o Accessibility was greatest when measured immediately and when it had been activated numerous
times in the past. (60 times at 80%).
Frequent priming led to effects that persisted through an hour and beyond and are sometimes detectable
even after 24 hours.
The Interaction of Recency and Frequency
Whichever concept is more highly accessible when the priming of concepts stops is the one that will be
You could also argue that it is not the accessibility at the time priming stops, but at the time the judgment is
made that matters.
5 The decay rate associated with a frequently primed construct may be slower than the decay rate of the
recently primed construct.
Higgins et al (1985):
o Participants were primed with one concept repeatedly (independent) but were primed with another
concept more recently (aloof).
o They were than asked to describe the behaviour of a person acting in a standoffish manner.
o Whether this person was seen as independent or aloof depended on the length of the delay between
when a construct was primed and when the judgment was made.
o Brief delay (15 seconds)- recently primed concept was more accessible and guided judgment
o Longer delay (2 minutes)- the frequently primed concept was now more accessible.
o Frequency and recency both influence the duration of accessibility effects.
A Caveat to the “Frequency of Exposure Increases Accesibilty” Rule
Decay is not the only factor that determines how long an accessible construct remains in a state of
Liberman and Forster (2000):
o Concept accessibility declines after the concept is being used.
o The use of the concept seems to deactivate the concept’s accessibility.
o The accessibility will only increase in strength as time passes.
o If one uses the construct and attains the goal, than accessibility is lost.
o The goal of trying to suppress a thought leads to the thought’s accessibility concepts were
activated by giving people the goal of not to think about them.
o They were then asked to describe a colourful painting without using color related words.
o A goal to use the suppressed concept would arise, regardless of whether that goal really did exist or
o Then, half of the subjects were given another picture to describe without any restriction mentions.
o People who had suppressed the use of colour words and then had the chance to express those
thoughts show a decrease in accessibility rather than an increase.
o Next, they were asked to provide descriptions about their homes while the experimenter was coding
to see how often people used colour terms in their description.
o Results: describing colours in a second painting led to decreased accesibilty but only for some
o People who had not been given the opportunity to satisfy the goal persisted in having these concepts
Having recently thought about or seen a particular concept- whether it’s a type of person, trait, goal or
stereotype will trigger that concept and make it perceptually ready.
Sometimes, the basis for an impression is a reliance on whatever concepts happen to be sitting at the top of
the perceiver’s heads without realizing that this was the basis of their impression.
It is also possible for perceivers to realize that their impressions are not based on an analysis of the
information but on fairly effortless processes.
Assimilation occurs when people lean on activated knowledge about a construct, using it as an interpretive
frame for subsequent information.
When the knowledge we have about an actor is used to interpret his/her behaviour, a perceptually ready
construct provides the meaning ascribed to a subsequent behaviour.
Accessible constructs can be used to interpret behaviour without awareness of its influence and can also
have an impact on the impressions of people other than the people who traits served to make the concept
6 Most cases of assimilation cab be described as cases of misattribution.
The Experimental Paradigm: Priming Task and judgment Task
A typical priming study is divided into 2 parts: a priming task and a judgment task.
Priming task- people are exposed to information like a stereotype or traits in order to make associated
Judgment task- people learn about and report impressions of a person described as having performed an
ambiguous behaviour that could be characterized in 2 nonoverlapping ways.
Higgins et al (1977):
o Exposed subjects to trait words along with some filler words as part of a “perception task.”
o This task was actually being used to prime specific traits.
o Subjects were shown a series of slides that contained words printed on backgrounds of different
colours and they were asked to name the colour.
o Before each slide, they also received a separate memory word that they were to repeated 8-10
seconds later, after they said the colour of the slide.
o Some subjects saw the memory words: reckless, conceited, aloof and stubborn.
o Others saw: adventurous, confident, independent and persistent.
o Later, subjects read a passage about Donald whos ambiguous behavoiur was along the trait
dimensions that were primed and were asked to make judgments on him.
o Exposure to those traits determined how people viewed Donald, without their realized that their
judgment was being influenced at all.
o Perceivers assimilate judgments of people they observe to match accessible constructs.
Tbe Four A’s of Assimilation: Applicability, Ambiguity, Assertibility, and Awareness
The applicability of the primed concept to the stimulus that is being categorized depends on how relevant
the accessible information in the mind is relative to the information we are attempting to understand.
Accessible information exerts an impact on our judgment only if the person we are judging is behaving in
an applicable/relevant manner.
Bruner (1957-) As accessibility increases, less stimulus input is needed and a wider range of stimuli will be
Higgins (1977) continued:
o The range of stimuli and behaviour that may be captured by the accessible construct does not extend
to all behaviour.
o They manipulated whether the behaviour observed (of Donald) was applicable to the accessible
o Some subjects were exposed to trait words that were relevant to Donald’s behaviour and some were
not applicable at all.
o Resulted in 4 types of primes: positive and applicable (confident), negative and applicable
(conceited), positive and non applicable (grateful) and negative and non-applicable. (clumsy).
o People only see the concepts that are accessible to them in the relevant places.
o Accessibility effects are truly linked to the specific constructs that are primed.
The stronger the accessibility, the wider the range of behaviors and stimuli that will be captured and seen as
The judgment of applicability is not solely based on the features of the stimulus, but also on the strength of
the excitation of the accessible construct.
Accessibility effects are dependent on the stimulus information being somewhat open to interpretation.
7 The acts observed are very subjective and we perceivers will interpret the actions in regards to what is
suggested by our accessible constructs.
Often we feel as though we are not allowed to assert a particular opinion.
One factor that determines what we will assert about a person whose behaviour we observed is the
quality of the stimulus information.
Increased clarity- the information strays from ambiguity in this direction of clarity- suggests a clear
Uninformative- instead of being ambiguous, does not suggest anything.
Another factor that determines whether assertibilty exists is whether we perceive a social constraint
that does not allow us to express a particular thought or feeling.
We need a “license” to speak our minds, and some situations take that license away.
In order for accessible information, like a stereotype or expectancy to influence people’s social judgments,
they must feel they are licensed to speak about this.
Monin and Miller (2001):
o Belief that people sometimes become so comfortable in the public perception that they are fair and
just, that they soon no longer need to guard ag