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Behavioral priming comes under fire

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  February 6, 2013 05:23 PM

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Behavioral priming has been a hot area of psychology research over the last two decades. It has been called into question lately, however, and last week The Chronicle of Higher Education detailed why the once high-flying field is at risk of being discredited—and how it could take one of psychology’s biggest names down with it.

Behavioral priming seeks to explain how cues in the environment affect our behavior on an unconscious level. The foundational priming experiment was conducted in the early-1990s when Yale psychologist John Bargh discovered that research subjects “primed” with words pertaining to old age (“bingo,” “Florida,” “wrinkles”) walked slower exiting the laboratory than subjects who’d been presented with a random set of words.

Bargh’s experiment was published in 1996. It quickly became a sensation, making Bargh an academic celebrity, and spawning a whole new field of research that has found priming effects in just about everything we do. In one study, subjects primed to think of themselves as soccer hooligans performed worse in a trivia competition than subjects primed to think of themselves as professors. Other studies, among many, have looked at how priming can make you more or less rude, or make you better or worse at your job.

As The Chronicle puts it, these experiments gained such notoriety because they raised fundamental questions about identity and free will: “Is our environment making us meaner or more creative or stupider without our realizing it? We like to think we're steering the ship of self, but what if we're actually getting blown about by ghostly gusts?”

But after the initial rush of priming experiments, psychologists began to try and replicate the early, astounding results—and, by and large, they’ve found they can’t. This failure to replicate has been going on for years but it has become an overwhelming issue just recently. Last year a study was published in PLoS One by researchers who’d failed to replicate Bargh’s elderly-walking study. The paper’s authors went so far as to suggest that flaws in Bargh’s original experiment design had led him to obtain bogus results.

The Chronicle article quoted David Shanks, professor of psychology at University College London, who says that as a result of the replication failures, doubts about the legitimacy of behavioral priming now run deep among psychologists:

"I think more people in academic psychology than you would imagine appreciate the historical implausibility of these findings, and it's just that those are the opinions that they have over the water fountain," [Shanks] says. "They're not the opinions that get into the journalism."

If behavioral priming goes up in smoke, so too will John Bargh’s reputation. "You invest your whole career and life in something,” Bargh told The Chronicle, “and to have this happen near the end of it—it's very hard to take." The article explains that Bargh has begun to take the long view on his research, hoping that after the furor dies down, priming will still be seen as an important explanation for why humans act as they do. In the meantime, it appears that things will get worse before they might get better—the Chronicle reports that there are a number of additional “failure to replicate” studies expected to be published soon.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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