What determines the direction of subliminal priming
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Masked stimuli (primes) can affect the preparation of a motor response to subsequently presented target stimuli. Reactions to the target can be facilitated (straight priming) or inhibited (inverse priming) when preceded by a compatible prime (calling for the same response) and also when preceded by an incompatible prime. Several hypotheses are currently under debate. These are the self-inhibition (SI) hypothesis, the object-updating (OU) hypothesis, and mask-triggered inhibition (MTI) hypothesis. All assume that the initial activation of the motor response is elicited by the prime according to its identity. This activation inevitably leads to straight priming in some cases and the mechanisms involved are undisputed. The hypotheses differ, however, as to why inverse priming occurs. The self-inhibition (SI) hypothesis assumes that the motor activation elicited by a prime is automatically followed by an inhibition phase, leading to inverse priming if three conditions are fulfilled: perceptual evidence for the prime has to be sufficiently strong, it has to be immediately removed by the mask, and the delay between the prime and target has to be long enough for inhibition to become effective. The object-updating (OU) hypothesis assumes that inverse priming is triggered by the mask, provided that it contains features calling for the alternative response (i.e. the one contrasting with the response induced by the prime). The MTI hypothesis assumes that the inhibitory phase is triggered by each successive stimulus which does not support the perceptual hypothesis provided by the prime. Based mostly on our own experiments, we argue that (1) attempts to manipulate the three factors required by the SI hypothesis imply changes of other variables and that (2) indeed, other variables seem to affect priming: prime-mask perceptual interaction and temporal position of the mask. These observations are in favor of the MTI hypothesis. A limiting factor for all three hypotheses is that inverse priming is larger for arrows than for other shapes, making it doubtful as to what extent the majority of studies on inverse priming, due to their use of arrows, can be generalized to other stimuli.
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