English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

For instance. I've never really paid attention to white vans, but when the DC sniper was at large and they stated that he's probably shooting from a white van, white vans seemed to appear out of no where and be around every corner!

share|improve this question

migrated from writers.stackexchange.com Aug 17 '12 at 18:31

This question came from our site for authors, editors, reviewers, professional writers, and aspiring writers.

up vote 8 down vote accepted

It's called priming, or attentional priming. It is a well-studied phenomenon of attentional shift.

Interestingly, priming work both ways. That is, a sensory stimulus (like the white van) can in some cases cause you to increase your attention to similar (white van-like) stimuli, or it can cause you to ignore similar stimuli, depending on how the initial stimulus is experienced.

You heightened your detection of white van-like stimuli because you were told that they were a threat. Likewise, you may have covertly suppressed your detection of red sedan-like stimuli containing nubile shapes in order to sharpen your alertness for white van-like stimuli, because the red objects could cause a potentially lethal distraction.

Priming is also used for some kinds of jokes. Jokes with pun punchlines rely on perceptual priming where the listener is led to form a cognitive concept about a word and then has the meaning shifted for humorous effect.

I believe that priming is the culprit for semantic satiety as well.

share|improve this answer
thank you for this; I had this exact question myself just the other day and I'm delighted to learn the proper term. :) – Lauren Ipsum Aug 17 '12 at 11:43
Thanks! Excellent write up :) – Jared Dec 3 '12 at 1:48

I think it's a variant of Confirmation Bias.

share|improve this answer
The Wikipedia article on this is refereshingly complete. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias – JLG Aug 19 '12 at 3:25

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.