Social priming” was once the hottest, most-covered new idea in psychology. Its premise: That you can “prime” behaviour in certain ways with unrelated stimuli.
Priming studies have suggested that hearing about old people makes you walk more slowly, and that holding a cup of hot coffee makes you feel “warmer” toward other people. Another: Describing a typical professor makes you perform better on knowledge tasks.
Most of these studies have failed replication attempts. That is to say, when other people have tried to repeat the experiments, it hasn’t worked.
Thursday, Neuroskeptic (the anonymous, respected psychology critic behind the blog and Twitter account of the same name) highlighted a new, interesting paper that appears to show a weak, limited priming effect in particular circumstances.
Titled “Replicable effects of primes on human behaviour” — an implicit attempt by the authors to distinguish it from other, non-replicable effects — it provides evidence for “behavioural priming” over short time spans.
In a series of experiments using varied methodologies and different subjects, people were shown words like “gamble,” “wager,” and “pass” before choosing whether to place a bet in a Blackjack-like card game.
When the subjects saw an encouraging word like “gamble” it made them more likely to bet in situations where the choice was 50/50, or when betting was a somewhat worse decision than passing.
The effect even appeared weakly in one experiment where the word flashed for 12 milliseconds on screen — to short a period for the conscious mind to notice.
Neuroskeptic, often a harsh critic of even slightly sketchy research, explains why — beyond the repeated internal replication in the paper — he finds its findings plausible:
Roughly speaking, we might say that when someone is faced with two equally good options, even a small and irrelevant prompt can make them pick one over the other. To put it another way, if there are no good reasons to pick one option, the brain is susceptible to making the choice based on bad reasons, such as familiarity e.g. the fact that one option was “advertised” 100 milliseconds before. There are ways one could formalise this idea in psychological or neuroscience terms.
My (rather unscientific) point is that the Payne et al. priming effect is a lot easier to believe than professor priming. Why should thinking about some group automatically make us behave like that group?
All of which is to say, the new paper is interesting in that it both finds a plausible example of real priming, while also doing nothing to prop up its decayed genre of research. And it’s worth noting that other researchers will have to replicate the effect in their own studies before we can really call it confirmed.
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