Negative priming is a cognitive paradigm (i.e., model) used in clinical research to refer to a delay in response or an increase in errors when responding to an item that was previously ignored.

The set up is as follows; in a first trial (called control condition), you are asked to ignore the word “red” and press a key when you see any other words, but in a second trial (called negative priming condition), you are asked to press the key when you see the word “red”, which was supposed to be ignored during the first trial. The speed at which you respond in this second trial compared to the first trial reflects one’s level of negative priming; the slower the response, the higher the negative priming.

The delayed response occurs because “red” was initially associated with “no response” earlier, and that inhibition takes time to dissipate. In other words, negative priming reflects either memory deficits (e.g., the first memory of “red” is still active) or poor cognitive flexibility (e.g., difficulty switching from one response to another). Negative priming is a normal response that we see even in healthy people; however it is more significant in certain clinical disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). 

In fact, studies show that OCD displays significant negative priming, which can explain the most common symptoms of the disorder. This suggests that individuals with OCD have an impaired ability to filter out irrelevant internal stimuli, which in turn can contribute to the symptoms of the disorder.

More particularly, some researchers claim that the intrusive and obsessive thoughts occurring seemingly against the person’s will appear consistent with impaired cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility refers to the brain’s ability to adapt and shift between different tasks or thought patterns. In the context of OCD, it may manifest as a difficulty in letting go of intrusive thoughts or shifting attention away from them.

In conclusion, the authors propose that negative priming and impaired cognitive flexibility may play a role in the development and/or maintenance of OCD symptoms. By understanding these underlying cognitive processes, researchers hope to gain further insights into the mechanisms of OCD and potentially develop more effective treatment approaches.


MacDonald, P. A., Antony, M. M., MacLeod, C. M., & Swinson, R. P. (1999). Negative priming for obsessive-compulsive checkers and noncheckers. J Abnorm Psychol, 108(4), 679-686. doi:10.1037//0021-843x.108.4.679


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