Perceptual Learning Can Reverse Subliminal Priming Effects

By Przekoracka-Krawczyk, Anna; Jaskowski, Piotr | Perception and Psychophysics, May 2007 | Go to article overview

Perceptual Learning Can Reverse Subliminal Priming Effects


Przekoracka-Krawczyk, Anna, Jaskowski, Piotr, Perception and Psychophysics


Masked primes presented prior to a target can result in inverse priming (i.e., benefits on trials in which the prime and the target are mapped onto opposite responses). In five experiments, time-of-task effects on subliminal priming of motor responses were investigated. First, we replicated Klapp and Hinkley's (2002) finding that the priming effect is initially straight (i.e., it benefits congruent trials, in which the prime and targets are mapped onto the same response) or absent, and only later reverses (i.e., faster responses in incongruent than in congruent trials). We show that the presentation of the mask plays a crucial role in this reversal and that the reversal occurs later if the mask pattern is very complex. We suggest that perceptual learning improves the recognition of task-relevant features. Once recognized, these features can trigger the preparation of the alternative response and/or inhibit the prime-activated response. These findings support an active role of the mask in priming.

Recent results have provided strong evidence that unconscious stimuli can affect people's actions (Ansorge, Klotz, & Neumann, 1998; Di Lollo, Bischof, & Dixon, 1993; Jaskowski, Skalska, & Verleger, 2003). In such experiments, participants typically make speeded choice responses to two stimuli-for instance, arrows pointing to the left or the right. These figures are preceded, however, by briefly displayed stimuli (primes) that are similar or identical to the target stimuli. Usually, a neutral mask is inserted between the prime and target stimuli in order to make the prime invisible. Even though the primes are not identifiable, responses to the target stimuli nonetheless are faster and more accurate when the prime and target both call for the same response (a congruent trial) than when the stimuli call for different responses (an incongruent trial).

These findings can be accounted for by the assumption that the masked prime is automatically processed, so that the response is prepared according to both the participant's intentions (or the experimenter's instructions; e.g., "respond with the left/right hand to a lefWright-pointing arrow") and the prime identity. Thus, preparation is already in progress when the target stimulus appears, leading to benefits in congruent trials and costs in incongruent trials.

However, subliminal priming does not always produce benefits for congruent trials and costs for incongruent trials (straight priming). Eimer and Schlaghecken (1998) showed that under some conditions, people perform better for incongruent than for congruent trials (inverse priming). In their experiments, they used double arrows pointing to the left or right as the prime and target stimuli. Left- and right-pointing double arrows superimposed upon one another formed the mask. In this case, responses were longer and less accurate when prime and target were congruent than when they were incongruent. To account for this inverse priming, Eimer and Schlaghecken later formulated the self-inhibition (SI) hypothesis (Eimer, Schubö, & Schlaghecken, 2002; Schlaghecken & Eimer, 2002), which suggested that a self-inhibition phase follows prime-evoked activation. When a target appears shortly after a prime, the response preparation triggered by the target falls during the activation phase, leading to straight priming. For longer prime-target intervals, however, the inhibitory process predominates, leading to inverse priming. This theory accounts for Schlaghecken and Eimer's earlier findings (Schlaghecken & Eimer, 1997, 2000, 2001) that inverse priming occurs only if the delay between prime and target is sufficiently long.

However, some authors have recently suggested (Jáskowski & Przekoracka-Krawczyk, 2005; lieras & Enns, 2004; Verleger, Jaskowski, Aydemir, van der Lubbe, & Groen, 2004) that the mask itself triggers the inhibitory processes that eventually lead to inverse priming. Indeed, in the majority of Eimer and Schlaghecken's experiments (Eimer, 1999; Eimer & Schlaghecken, 2001; Eimer et al. …

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