The amazing influence of unconscious cues is among the most fascinating discoveries of our time—that is, if it's true
By Tom Bartlett
New Haven, Conn.
Along with personal upheaval, including a lengthy child-custody battle, [Yale social psychologist John Bargh] has coped with what amounts to an assault on his life's work, the research that pushed him into prominence, the studies that Malcolm Gladwell called "fascinating" and Daniel Kahneman deemed "classic."
What was once widely praised is now being pilloried in some quarters as emblematic of the shoddiness and shallowness of social psychology. When Bargh responded to one such salvo with a couple of sarcastic blog posts, he was ridiculed as going on a "one-man rampage." He took the posts down and regrets writing them, but his frustration and sadness at how he's been treated remain.
Psychology may be simultaneously at the highest and lowest point in its history. Right now its niftiest findings are routinely simplified and repackaged for a mass audience; if you wish to publish a best seller sans bloodsucking or light bondage, you would be well advised to match a few dozen psychological papers with relatable anecdotes and a grabby, one-word title. That isn't true across the board. ... But a social psychologist with a sexy theory has star potential. In the last decade or so, researchers have made astonishing discoveries about the role of consciousness, the reasons for human behavior, the motivations for why we do what we do. This stuff is anything but incremental.
At the same time, psychology has been beset with scandal and doubt. Formerly high-flying researchers like Diederik Stapel, Marc Hauser, and Dirk Smeesters saw their careers implode after allegations that they had cooked their results and managed to slip them past the supposedly watchful eyes of peer reviewers.
Psychology isn't the only field with fakers, but it has its share. Plus there's the so-called file-drawer problem, that is, the tendency for researchers to publish their singular successes and ignore their multiple failures, making a fluke look like a breakthrough. Fairly or not, social psychologists are perceived to be less rigorous in their methods, generally not replicating their own or one another's work, instead pressing on toward the next headline-making outcome.
Much of the criticism has been directed at priming. The definitions get dicey here because the term can refer to a range of phenomena, some of which are grounded in decades of solid evidence—like the "anchoring effect," which happens, for instance, when a store lists a competitor's inflated price next to its own to make you think you're getting a bargain. That works. The studies that raise eyebrows are mostly in an area known as behavioral or goal priming, research that demonstrates how subliminal prompts can make you do all manner of crazy things. A warm mug makes you friendlier. The American flag makes you vote Republican. Fast-food logos make you impatient.
A small group of skeptical psychologists—let's call them the Replicators—have been trying to reproduce some of the most popular priming effects in their own labs.
What have they found? Mostly that they can't get those results. The studies don't check out. Something is wrong. And because he is undoubtedly the biggest name in the field, the Replicators have paid special attention to John Bargh and the study that started it all.
... When the walking times of the two groups were compared, the Florida-knits-alone subjects walked, on average, more slowly than the control group. Words on a page made them act old.
It's a cute finding. But the more you think about it, the more serious it starts to seem. What if we are constantly being influenced by subtle, unnoticed cues? If "Florida" makes you sluggish, could "cheetah" make you fleet of foot? Forget walking speeds. 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?
Advertisers, from John Wanamaker onward, sure as heck hope they are blowing you about by ghostly gusts.
John Bargh and his co-authors, Mark Chen and Lara Burrows, performed that experiment in 1990 or 1991. They didn't publish it until 1996. Why sit on such a fascinating result? For starters, they wanted to do it again, which they did. They also wanted to perform similar experiments with different cues. One of those other experiments tested subjects to see if they were more hostile when primed with an African-American face. They were. (The subjects were not African-American.) ...
Since that study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, it has been cited more than 2,000 times. Though other researchers did similar work at around the same time, and even before, it was that paper that sparked the priming era. Its authors knew, even before it was published, that the paper was likely to catch fire. They wrote: "The implications for many social psychological phenomena ... would appear to be considerable."
Translation: This is a huge deal.
... The last year has been tough for Bargh. Professionally, the nadir probably came in January, when a failed replication of the famous elderly-walking study was published in the journal PLoS ONE. It was not the first failed replication, but this one stung. In the experiment, the researchers had tried to mirror Bargh's methods with an important exception: Rather than stopwatches, they used automatic timing devices with infrared sensors to eliminate any potential bias. The words didn't make subjects act old. They tried the experiment again with stopwatches and added a twist: They told those operating the stopwatches which subjects were expected to walk slowly. Then it worked. The title of their paper tells the story: "Behavioral Priming: It's All in the Mind, but Whose Mind?"
I come out of the objective side of marketing research. We collected hard data from supermarket checkout scanners on what people were actually buying with their own money. Obviously, we were biased, but we always told clients that the subjective side of research -- phone surveys, focus groups, etc. -- was rife with unconscious bias. Both the researchers and the subjects were good at picking up and passing on clues about what the client wants to hear, and thus tended to produce results backing up whatever you want. That's fine for waging office politics struggles, but if you want to know what consumers really will do with their own money, you have to come to us. That was our pitch, and it was pretty persuasive (for awhile, at least).
The paper annoyed Bargh. He thought the researchers didn't faithfully follow his methods section, despite their claims that they did. But what really set him off was a blog post that explained the results. The post, on the blog Not Exactly Rocket Science, compared what happened in the experiment to the notorious case of Clever Hans, the horse that could supposedly count. It was thought that Hans was a whiz with figures, stomping a hoof in response to mathematical queries. In reality, the horse was picking up on body language from its handler. Bargh was the deluded horse handler in this scenario.
... Harold Pashler wouldn't. Pashler, a professor of psychology at the University of California at San Diego, is the most prolific of the Replicators.
I've met Hal. He's a good guy.
He started trying priming experiments about four years ago because, he says, "I wanted to see these effects for myself." That's a diplomatic way of saying he thought they were fishy. He's tried more than a dozen so far, including the elderly-walking study. He's never been able to achieve the same results. Not once.
This fall, Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, sent an e-mail to a small group of psychologists, including Bargh, warning of a "train wreck looming" in the field because of doubts surrounding priming research. He was blunt: "I believe that you should collectively do something about this mess. To deal effectively with the doubts you should acknowledge their existence and confront them straight on, because a posture of defiant denial is self-defeating," he wrote.
... One possible explanation for why these studies continually and bewilderingly fail to replicate is that they have hidden moderators, sensitive conditions that make them a challenge to pull off. Pashler argues that the studies never suggest that. He wrote in that same e-mail: "So from our reading of the literature, it is not clear why the results should be subtle or fragile." ...
The skepticism about priming, says Shanks, isn't limited to those who have committed themselves to reperforming these experiments. It's not only the Replicators. "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," he says. "They're not the opinions that get into the journalism."
Like all the skeptics I spoke with, Shanks believes the worst is yet to come for priming, predicting that "over the next two or three years you're going to see an avalanche of failed replications published." The avalanche may come sooner than that. There are failed replications in press at the moment and many more that have been completed (Shanks's paper on the professor prime is in press at PLoS ONE). A couple of researchers I spoke with didn't want to talk about their results until they had been peer reviewed, but their preliminary results are not encouraging.
... In the e-mail discussion spurred by Kahneman's call to action, Dijksterhuis laid out a number of possible explanations for why skeptics were coming up empty when they attempted priming studies. Cultural differences, for example.
Studying prejudice in the Netherlands is different from studying it in the United States. Certain subjects are not susceptible to certain primes, particularly a subject who is unusually self-aware. In an interview, he offered another, less charitable possibility. "It could be that they are bad experimenters," he says. "They may turn out failures to replicate that have been shown by 15 or 20 people already. It basically shows that it's something with them, and it's something going on in their labs."
Okay, but I've never seen this explanation offered: successful priming studies stop replicating after awhile because they basically aren't science. At least not in the sense of having discovered something that will work forever.
Instead, to the extent that they ever did really work, they are exercises in marketing. Or, to be generous, art.
And, art wears off.
The power of a work of art to prime emotions and actions changes over time. Perhaps, initially, the audience isn't ready for it, then it begins to impact a few sensitive fellow artists, and they begin to create other works in its manner and talk it up, and then it become widely popular. Over time, though, boredom sets in and people look for new priming stimuli.
For a lucky few old art works (e.g., the great Impressionist paintings), vast networks exist to market them by helping audiences get back into the proper mindset to appreciate the old art (E.g., "Monet was a rebel, up against The Establishment! So, putting this pretty picture of flowers up on your wall shows everybody that you are an edgy outsider, too!").
So, let's assume for a moment that Bargh's success in the early 1990s at getting college students to walk slow wasn't just fraud or data mining for a random effect among many effects. He really was priming early 1990s college students into walking slow for a few seconds.
Is that so amazing?
Other artists and marketers in the early 1990s were priming sizable numbers of college students into wearing flannel lumberjack shirts or dancing the Macarena or voting for Ross Perot, all of which seem, from the perspective of 2013, a lot more amazing.
Overall, it's really not that hard to prime young people to do things. They are always looking around for clues about what's cool to do.
But it's hard to keep them doing the same thing over and over. The Macarena isn't cool anymore, so it would be harder to replicate today an event in which young people are successfully primed to do the Macarena.
So, in the best case scenario, priming isn't science, it's art or marketing.