The (un)reliability of item-level semantic priming effects

  • Tom Heyman
  • Anke Bruninx
  • Keith A. Hutchison
  • Gert Storms


Many researchers have tried to predict semantic priming effects using a myriad of variables (e.g., prime–target associative strength or co-occurrence frequency). The idea is that relatedness varies across prime–target pairs, which should be reflected in the size of the priming effect (e.g., cat should prime dog more than animal does). However, it is only insightful to predict item-level priming effects if they can be measured reliably. Thus, in the present study we examined the split-half and test–retest reliabilities of item-level priming effects under conditions that should discourage the use of strategies. The resulting priming effects proved extremely unreliable, and reanalyses of three published priming datasets revealed similar cases of low reliability. These results imply that previous attempts to predict semantic priming were unlikely to be successful. However, one study with an unusually large sample size yielded more favorable reliability estimates, suggesting that big data, in terms of items and participants, should be the future for semantic priming research.


Semantic priming Split-half reliability Test–retest reliability Semantic memory 


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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tom Heyman
    • 1
  • Anke Bruninx
    • 1
  • Keith A. Hutchison
    • 2
  • Gert Storms
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Experimental PsychologyUniversity of LeuvenLeuvenBelgium
  2. 2.Montana State UniversityBozemanUSA

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