My latest ‘behind the headlines’ column for The Conversation. Probably all old news for you wised-up mindhacks.com readers, but here you go:
Controversy is simmering in the world of psychology research over claims that many famous effects reported in the literature aren’t reliable, or may even not exist at all.
The latest headlines follow the publication of experiments which failed to replicate a landmark study by Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis. These experiments are examples of what psychologists call “social priming”, which is a phenomenon where people who are exposed to ideas unconsciously incorporate them into their behaviour. So people who are reminded of old age are reported to walk slower, and people asked to think about university professors do better on a trivial pursuit knowledge test.
What they actually did
The first of Dijksterhuis’ original experiments asked people to think about the typical university professor and list on paper their appearance, lifestyle and behaviours. After this they answered 42 questions taken from Trivial Pursuit.
The experiment found that people who had thought about professors scored 10% higher than people who hadn’t been primed in this way. In this latest report, David Shanks, Head of the Division of Psychology and Language Sciences at University College London and colleagues tried to replicate this effect in nine separate experiments. They didn’t find the effect in any of their experiments, which they suggest calls into question the validity of the original research.
How plausible is it
It’s extremely plausible that people are influenced by recent activities and thoughts – the concept of priming is beyond question, having been supported by decades of research.
What’s less established is whether these effects are really “unconscious” (whatever that means) and whether sophisticated concepts like intelligence can really worm their way into our behaviour in such a profound way.
The headline reporting of this spat is misleading – there’s nothing worrying about disputed results for social psychology. The process of affirming, disputing and denying results is part of the normal part of science. What is worrying is that this failed replication comes on top of other failed replications of famous social priming results and after the discovery of some high profile frauds in psychology, such as Diederik Stapel.
This has led some to talk of a crisis in experimental social psychology, centring on whether standards of research in the area have slipped enough to allow false results to become easily accepted.
The whole situation is a wonderful opportunity to see “under the hood” of science and see how it really works (rather than how we’re taught it should work). Everything is in the mix: fundamental conceptual disagreements (about the nature of unconscious processing), disciplinary tribalism (between cognitive psychologists and social psychologists), big dog personalities and emotions running high, academic fashion creating a scientific “bubble” (this is that bubble bursting) and soul-searching questions about whether our methods as researchers are fit for purpose.
My guess is that, when the dust settles, we’ll find out that priming effects can work – but they aren’t as strong or common as reported. I have faith that most effects reported in the literature will turn out to true in some form – the vast majority of psychologists are honest and methodical – but we also know for sure than some effects will turn out to have been chimeras, we just can’t say for sure in advance which.
The really interesting aspects to the debate, from my point of view, is going to be clarifying exactly how unconscious these effects are. My prejudice is that social psychologists have been overly casual about using that word, using it in circumstances which would contradict the way most people use it, whether they’re psychologists or not.
Shanks, D. R., Newell, B. R., Lee, E. H., Balakrishnan, D., Ekelund, L., Cenac, Z., Fragkiski, K. & Moore, C. (2013). Priming Intelligent Behavior: An Elusive Phenomenon, PloS one, 8(4), e56515.
Tom Stafford does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.