The Chronicle of Higher Education has an in-depth article that explores the controversy over social priming, which suggest that our behaviour can be changed by exposing us to certain concepts.
The most famous study in the genre was led by psychologist John Bargh, who is the focus of the story and who found that people walked more slowly down a corridor after reading words associated with being old.
A failed replication of this study and the subsequent online reporting led Bargh to get a bit hot under the collar which was the tipping point for growing skepticism concerning social priming.
The article is a very good account of that, although one drawback is that it doesn’t distinguish very well between ‘priming‘ – an extremely well replicated effect and one of the bedrocks of psychology, and ‘social priming’ – the subtype which is now in doubt.
The idea behind classic priming is that if you activate a meaning, perhaps just by experiencing it, related meanings will also become activated. This activation will be less strong for less related meanings.
Because we access meanings that are activated more quickly, you can test effect in reaction time tasks.
For example, if you see the word ‘apple’ you will subsequently identify the word ‘orange’ more quickly because they are related in meaning. The word ‘aeroplane’, however, will be unaffected. In other words ‘apple’ will prime ‘orange’ but not ‘aeroplane’.
There are various ways of testing this but it boils down to the fact that in terms of priming meaning, the effect is not at all controversial. It’s extremely reliable and can be seen in many sorts of tasks – verbal, visual, auditory and so on.
However, social priming suggests that concepts about people or identity (such as being old or being a professor) affect complex behaviours (such as walking speed or test performance).
Furthermore, several of these experiments have suggested that the meanings can be primed in ways that rely on analogy or metaphor – for example, that people who feel lonely will spend more time in a hot shower as they are primed to need ‘warmth’.
Many people find some of these effects implausible and, as the article makes clear, the skeptics are now attempting to replicate some of the most well-known experiments to very mixed results.
If you’ve not been following the wires, when a research team couldn’t replicate Bargh’s study everything kicked off and hangbags were flailed around by Bargh, a Belgian research group, Nature, a Nobel prize winner and the internet.
Bin your copies of Kuhn people, this is how science really works.
Link to Chronicle article on social priming.