Can reading words related to the concept old age make you walk more slowly the next moment? A number of studies have suggested that such ‘priming’ effects can occur, and a prominent illustration is the claim that individuals’ accuracy in answering general knowledge questions can be influenced by activating intelligence-related concepts such as professor or soccer hooligan.
However, when researcher David R. Shanks (University College London) and his colleagues rerun 9 experiments with 475 participants, exactly copying the procedures used in these studies, none of the experiments obtained the effect. One effect remained visible: financial incentives did boost performance.
Questioning the unconscious
Shanks’ article on PLos ONE uses a Bayesian analysis to reveal considerable evidential support for the null hypothesis. “The results conform to the pattern typically obtained in word priming experiments in which priming is very narrow in its generalization and unconscious (subliminal) influences, if they occur at all, are extremely short-lived. We encourage others to explore the circumstances in which this phenomenon might be obtained.”
Nature reports that “an acrimonious e-mail debate on the subject has been dividing psychologists, who are already jittery about other recent exposures of irreproducible results. ‘It’s about more than just replicating results from one paper’, says Shanks, who circulated a draft of his study in October; the failed replications call into question the underpinnings of ‘unconscious-thought theory’.”
“Ap Dijksterhuis published that theory in 2006. It fleshed out more general, long-held claims about a ‘smart unconscious’ that had been proposed over the past couple of decades […] The theory holds that behaviour can be influenced, or ‘primed’, by thoughts or motives triggered unconsciously — in the case of intelligence priming, by the stereotype of a clever professor or a stupid hooligan. Most psychologists accept that such priming can occur consciously, but many, including Shanks, are unconvinced by claims of unconscious effects.”
intelligence priming claims
Shanks and his co-authors conclude their article by saying: “We do not deny outright the possibility of unconscious influences on behaviour, and obviously the present experiments only relate to one particular type of priming and one particular behaviour. However the present results are consistent with many other examples where claims of unconscious influences have not withstood subsequent scrutiny.”
“It is never possible to recreate exactly the conditions of previous experiments but if intelligence priming effects are as important as some claim them to be (and as large), then they ought to withstand minor variations in procedure, otherwise we have little prospect of understanding their basis and it is unclear why they should be afforded substantial theoretical significance.”
“The e-mail debate that Shanks joined was kicked off last September, when Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel-prizewinning psychologist from Princeton University in New Jersey who thinks that unconscious social priming is likely to be real, circulated an open letter warning of a ‘train wreck looming’ because of a growing number of failures to replicate results. Social psychology ‘is now the poster child for doubts about the integrity of psychological research’, he told psychologists, ‘and it is your responsibility’ to deal with it.”
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