The Hot and Cold of Priming: Psychologists Are Divided on Whether Unnoticed Cues Can Influence Behavior

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, May 19, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Hot and Cold of Priming: Psychologists Are Divided on Whether Unnoticed Cues Can Influence Behavior


Bower, Bruce, Science News


It's prime time in social psychology for studying primes, a term for cues that go unnoticed but still sway people's attitudes and behavior.

Primes have been reported to influence nearly every facet of social life, at least in lab experiments. Subtle references to old age can cause healthy college students to slow their walking pace without realizing it. Cunningly presented cues about money nudge people to become more self-oriented and less helpful to others. And people holding a hot cup of coffee are more apt to judge strangers as having warm personalities.

Over the last 15 years, many social psychologists have come to regard the triggering of personal tendencies by unnoticed cues as an established phenomenon. Priming may even inspire innovative mental health treatments, some argue.

Yale University psychologist John Bargh likens primes to whistles that only mental butlers can hear. Once roused by primes, these silent inner servants dutifully act on a person's preexisting tendencies and preferences without making a conscious commotion. Many animals reflexively take appropriate actions in response to fleeting smells and sounds associated with predators or potential mates, suggesting an ancient evolutionary heritage for priming, Bargh says. People can pursue actions on their own initiative, but mental butlers strive to ease the burden on the conscious lord of the manor.

Despite the fondness that a lot of social psychologists have for studying primes, long-simmering skepticism about this research has now reached a boiling point. Investigators of decision making, memory and other mental faculties, collectively known as cognitive psychologists, say that bedrock priming effects vanish when independent researchers carefully repeat the experiments. Selective reporting of data in priming papers, a practice that occurs in other areas of psychological research, undermines the statistical strength of many published findings, researchers asserted in January in San Diego at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

One new report suggests that volunteers consciously pick up on what's expected of them in priming trials by reading researchers' body language and other unwitting, nonverbal prompts. A handful of studies, unpublished but posted on a new website, that attempted to minimize direct contact between participants and experimenters find no signs of several previously reported priming effects. Scientific misgivings about priming have apparently strengthened a grassroots movement in psychology to make research more accessible and transparent via the Internet.

Critics consider the power of consciously directed decisions to be more important than priming. Occasional unconscious influences on thoughts and actions are weak and short-lived, this perspective holds. Behavior typically changes slowly and with much effort, explaining why many priming effects that just barely pass statistical muster vanish with further testing.

"The big idea in social psychology is that social behavior is unconsciously influenced by cues in the environment, but the evidence for that idea needs to be much better," says cognitive psychologist David Shanks of University College London.

Walk this way

Much of the current fuss over priming concerns Bargh-directed experiments described in an influential 1996 paper. College students unscrambled sentences that, for one group, contained words related to stereotypes about the elderly, such as wrinkle and Florida. Upon finishing, participants who had read old age-related words took about a second longer to walk down an exit hallway than peers who had perused age-neutral words.

A string of unnoticed, stereotypical references to the elderly slyly evoked thoughts of physical deterioration with age, prompting healthy young adults to slow down, Bargh proposed (SN: 10/30/99, p. 280).

Cognitive psychologist Stephane Doyen of Universite Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium has long felt that something was out of step with Bargh's findings. …

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