The structure of semantic person memory: Evidence from semantic priming in person recognition


Holger Wiese, Department of General Psychology and DFG Research Unit Person Perception, Friedrich Schiller University, Am Steiger 3/1, 07743 Jena, Germany (e-mail:


This paper reviews research on the structure of semantic person memory as examined with semantic priming. In this experimental paradigm, a familiarity decision on a target face or written name is usually faster when it is preceded by a related as compared to an unrelated prime. This effect has been shown to be relatively short lived and susceptible to interfering items. Moreover, semantic priming can cross stimulus domains, such that a written name can prime a target face and vice versa. However, it remains controversial whether representations of people are stored in associative networks based on co-occurrence, or in more abstract semantic categories. In line with prominent cognitive models of face recognition, which explain semantic priming by shared semantic information between prime and target, recent research demonstrated that priming could be obtained from purely categorically related, non-associated prime/target pairs. Although strategic processes, such as expectancy and retrospective matching likely contribute, there is also evidence for a non-strategic contribution to priming, presumably related to spreading activation. Finally, a semantic priming effect has been demonstrated in the N400 event-related potential (ERP) component, which may reflect facilitated access to semantic information. It is concluded that categorical relatedness is one organizing principle of semantic person memory.