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Affective Priming

By: , Posted on: October 2, 2014

This blog presents a third example of priming known generally as the affective priming, also known as emotional priming. On page 230 of my book, Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory, I describe emotional priming as follows:

Emotional priming entails the repeated presentation of words that activate emotions. For example, Power et al. (1991) used sets of words to activate the following four basic emotions: (a) happiness, love, joy, pleasure; (b) sadness, grief, misery, depression; (c) anger, hate, jealousy, aggression; and (d) fear, panic, terror, anxiety.

Emotional priming is accomplished by presenting an emotionally laden word or image just before presenting the word or image that is to be affectively primed. Astute readers will notice that this method is also called backward classical conditioning.

Pavlov (1927/1960) discovered that presenting a neutral stimulus, such as ringing a bell, prior to presenting meat powder would cause the dog to salivate when hearing the bell. The bell signaled meat powder and this expectation started the dog salivating. The neutral stimulus is correctly called the conditional stimulus (CS) because its acquired properties depend upon, are conditional upon, continued association; in this case with meat powder. The meat powder is correctly called the unconditional stimulus (UCS) because it causes salivation unconditionally. Reversing the order of presentation is referred to as backward conditioning. The UCS is presented before the CS in emotional priming.

Emotional and affective priming are also called evaluative conditioning. On page 483 of my book I describe this form of priming as follows:

Evaluative conditioning concerns how we come to like or dislike something by way of associations. Advertising frequently uses classical conditioning to influence consumer behavior. Associating a movie star or star athlete with their product by having said person hold the product or talk favorably about the product while using it or wearing it is a frequently used method. A PubMed search for ‘evaluative conditioning’ on 8 September 2013 returned 180 citations indicating the presence of a substantial literature. Some evidence indicates that evaluative conditioning entails higher cortical processing than basic classical conditioning does, and that it is more long-lasting than simple classical conditioning. The proposed Bio↔Psychological Network Theory can handle all of this as it is both a cognitive and conditioning theory.

On page 241 of my book I noted the following political application of affective priming.

Isbell (2012) reviewed several studies where priming was used to activate the emotions of fear/anxiety and anger. These manipulations predictably altered the participant’s perceptions and attitudes. For example, Lerner et al. (2003) and Nabi (2003) demonstrated that participants primed with anger perceived a lower risk of future terrorism than participants primed with fear. Anger-primed participants were less inclined to approve additional security measures than participants primed with fear. Participants primed with anger were more favorable to harsh penalties for drunk driving than participants primed with fear. MacKuen et al. (2011) reported that participants primed with anger tend to decrease attention to new information and rely on partisanship. Parker and Isbell (2010) reported that participants primed with fear are more open to new information compared to participants primed with anger. Valentino et al. (2008) found that worried citizens are more informed than angry citizens.


Affective priming is a robust method for activating brain mechanisms that modify how we think and feel about a wide variety of matters. I mentioned that there are other forms of priming two blogs ago but these three blogs should be sufficient to make the following point. Priming is a well replicated psychological phenomenon that can be explained using the explanatory nucleus principles introduced in earlier blogs. I refer to the fact that activations biologically reinforce the processing pathways that they take through our neural networks via experience-dependent plasticity mechanisms. Parallel-distributed-processing (PDP) connectionist neural network (CNN) models simulate these processes. Hence, priming can be understood in physical terms, consistent with the paradigm shift introduced in a previous blog, as Network Principle 5; the first corollary network principle.

I present the part-whole pattern completion principle in my next blog at Network Principle 6.

About the Author

Warren Tryon at Swan Lake
Here’s Dr. Tryon at Swan Lake at Rockefeller State Park

Warren W. Tryon received his undergraduate degree from Ohio Northern University in 1966. He was enrolled in the APA approved Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology at Kent State University from 1966 – 1970. Upon graduation from Kent State, Dr. Tryon joined the Psychology Department faculty at Fordham University in 1970 as an Assistant Professor. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1977 and to Full Professor in 1983. Licensed as a psychologist in New York State in 1973, he joined the National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology in 1976, became a Diplomate in Clinical Psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) in 1984, was promoted to Fellow of Division 12 (Clinical) of the American Psychological Association in 1994 and a fellow of the American Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology in 1996. Also in 1996 he became a Founder of the Assembly of Behavior Analysis and Therapy. In 2003 he joined The Academy of Clinical Psychology. He was Director of Clinical Psychology Training from 1997 to 2003, and presently is in the third and final year of phased retirement. He will become Emeritus Professor of Psychology in May 2015 after 45 years of service to Fordham University. Dr. Tryon has published 179 titles, including 3 books, 22 chapters, and 140 articles in peer reviewed journals covering statistics, neuropsychology, and clinical psychology. He has reviewed manuscripts for 45 journals and book publishers and has authored 145 papers/posters that were presented at major scientific meetings. Dr. Tryon has mentored 87 doctoral dissertations to completion. This is a record number of completed dissertations at the Fordham University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and likely elsewhere.

His academic lineage is as follows. His mentor was V. Edwin Bixenstein who studied with O. Hobart Mowrer at the University of Illinois who studied with Knight Dunlap at Johns Hopkins University who studied with Hugo Munsterberg at Harvard University who studied with Wilhelm Wundt at the University of Leipzig.

Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory is Dr. Tryon’s capstone publication. It is the product of more than a quarter of a century of scholarship. Additional material added after this book was printed is available at This includes chapter supplements, a color version of Figure 5.6, and a thirteenth “Final Evaluation” chapter. He is on LinkedIn and Facebook. His email address is


Lerner, J. S., Gonzalez, R. M., Small, D. A., & Fischhoff, B. (2003). Effects of fear and anger on perceived risks of terrorism: A national field experiment. Psychological Science, 14(2), 144–150.

Nabi, R. L. (2003). Exploring the framing effect of emotion. Do discrete emotions differentially influence information accessibility, information seeking, and policy preference? Communication Research, 30, 224–247.

Isbell, L. M. (2012). The emotional citizen: How feelings drive political preferences and behavior. American Psychological Association Observer, 25(8), 13–16.

MacKuen, M., Wokak, J., Keele, L., & Marcus, G. E. (2011). Civic engagements: Resolute partisanship or reflective deliberation. American Journal of Political Science, 54, 440-458.

Parker, M. T., & Isbell, L. M. (2010). How I vote depends on how I feel: The differential impact of anger and fear on political information processing. Psychological Science, 21, 549–550.

Pavlov, I. P. (1960). Conditioned reflexes: An investigation of the physiological activity of the cerebral cortex. In G. V. Anrep, & Trans. (Eds.). New York: Dover. (Original work published 1927).

Power, M. J., Brewin, C. R., Stuessy, A., & Mahony, T. (1991). The emotional priming task: Results from a student population. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 15, 21–31.

Tryon, W. W. (2014). Cognitive neuroscience and psychotherapy: Network Principles for a Unified Theory. New York: Academic Press.

Valentino, N. A., Hutchings, V. L., Banks, A. J., & Davis, A. K. (2008). Is a worried citizen a good citizen? Emotions, political information seeking, and learning via the internet. Political Psychology, 29, 247-273.

This blog and all others by Dr. Warren Tryon can be found on his Fordham faculty webpage located at

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