Priming of Semantic Classifications: Late and Response Related, or Earlier and More Central?

Article excerpt

Priming of semantic classifications may occur because of response-related priming or because of priming at a more central locus. To separate these two possibilities, we randomly intermixed adjectives and first names, using a response window procedure. Participants decided whether the adjectives were positively or negatively valenced and whether the names were male or female. Each of these kinds of targets was preceded by adjective or name primes associated with responses that either matched or mismatched the correct response to the target. Results showed that priming of semantic classification involves two components: a major response-related one, modulated by prime visibility and prime-target repetition, and a smaller component with a more central locus that is less susceptible to context effects.

The classification of a target word is affected by the category of an immediately preceding prime word. For example, in affective priming (Klauer & Musch, 2003), target words are to be classified as either evaluatively positive or negative in the so-called evaluative decision task. Evaluative decisions are faster and more accurate for target words preceded by evaluatively congruent prime words (e.g., luck-sunshine) than for target words preceded by evaluatively incongruent prime words (e.g., angersunshine). We will use the general term classification priming for priming effects in semantic classification tasks that arise as a consequence of the prime and the target being members of the same response category (congruent prime-target pairs) versus different response categories (incongruent prime-target pairs).

Classification priming can reflect facilitation and/or inhibition at the response selection stage, at the stage of categorizing targets, or during encoding or lexical access for targets. For example, according to Kunde, Kiesel, and Hoffmann (2003), participants specify so-called action triggers in elaborating the task instructions and as a consequence of practice in the classification task. These action triggers are templates against which target stimuli are matched perceptually. In the case of a match, the response belonging to the matching action trigger is released. Primes have the power to bias responses if they match one of the action triggers perceptually. This account is consistent with the idea that the prime and the target are processed independently up to a response selection stage at which prime-derived and target-derived response implications interact.

Furthermore, a large literature on semantic priming suggests that prime words can facilitate encoding or lexical access for semantically related targets, including categorically related targets. A third possibility is that primederived and target-derived bits of information interact at the stage of categorizing the target in one of the response categories. Specifically, a prime word might activate the mental representation of its task-relevant category (e.g., the category positive in the evaluative decision task), thereby facilitating the categorization of congruent targets as exemplars of this same category or hindering the categorization of incongruent targets as exemplars of the other category (e.g., the category negative). We will refer to priming effects reflecting facilitation and/or inhibition of encoding, lexical access, or categorization for targets as central priming.

The purpose of the present study was to tease apart the relative contributions of response-related and central priming effects through the use of a modified priming task. We mixed two semantic classification tasks in random sequence: a gender decision task, in which the gender (male or female) of common first names had to be determined, and the above-described evaluative decision task applied to evaluatively polarized adjectives. The kind of target (first name vs. adjective) signaled which task was to be performed on any given trial. The same response keys were used for both tasks. …