Semantic priming refers to the observation that a response to a target (e.g., dog) is faster when it is preceded by a semantically related prime (e.g., cat) compared to an unrelated prime (e.g., car). Semantic priming may occur because the prime partially activates related words or concepts, facilitating their later processing or recognition. Although this process is often automatic, priming can also be guided by the use of specific strategies to achieve a particular task goal. For example, one could prospectively generate a number of potential targets based on the prime, or retrospectively check whether the target is related to the previously displayed prime.
Heyman et al. (online first, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition) (PDF, 201KB) used a dual-task paradigm to assess the extent to which these two different priming strategies (prospective, retrospective) require working memory resources. Participants were shown a simple (four dots in a line) or complex (four dots randomly placed) dot pattern that they had to hold in memory while completing a lexical decision task. On each lexical decision trial, a prime-target pair was presented, and participants had to indicate whether the target was a word or non-word as quickly and accurately as possible. On 60% of the trials, the prime and target were semantically related in one of three ways: forward associate (e.g., panda-bear), backward associate (e.g., ball-catch), and symmetric associate (e.g., answer-question).
Responses were faster to targets preceded by backward and symmetric associate primes compared to unrelated primes regardless of dot pattern complexity. In contrast, a priming effect was only observed for forward associate pairs when the dot pattern held in memory was simple, not complex. These results led the authors to conclude that forward associate priming based on prospective processes depends on working memory, whereas backward associate priming based on retrospective processes is relatively effortless.
Semantic priming in a first and second language: evidence from reaction time variability and event-related brain potentials [An article from: Journal of Neurolinguistics]