February 5, 2013

Social Psychology & Priming: Art Wears Off

One of the most popular social psychology studies of the Malcolm Gladwell Era has been Yale professor John Bargh's paper on how you can "prime" students to walk more slowly by first having them do word puzzles that contain a hidden theme of old age by the inclusion of words like "wrinkle" and "bingo." The primed subjects then took one second longer on average to walk down the hall than the unprimed control group. Isn't that amazing! (Here's Gladwell's description of Bargh's famous experiment in his 2005 bestseller Blink.)

This finding has electrified the Airport Book industry for years: Science proves you can manipulate people into doing what you want them to! Why you'd want college students to walk slower is unexplained, but that's not the point. The point is that Science proves that people are manipulable. 

Now, a large fraction of the buyers of Airport Books like Blink are marketing and advertising professionals, who are paid handsomely to manipulate people, and to manipulate them into not just walking slower, but into shelling out real money to buy the clients' products. 

Moreover, everybody notices that entertainment can prime you in various ways. For instance, well-made movies prime how I walk down the street afterwards. For two nights after seeing the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men, I walked the quiet streets swiveling my head, half-certain that an unstoppable killing machine was tailing me. When I came out of Christopher Nolan's amnesia thriller Memento, I was convinced I'd never remember where I parked my car. (As it turned out, I quickly found my car. Why? Because I needed to. But it was fun for thirty seconds to act like, and maybe even believe, that the movie had primed me into amnesia.) 

Now, you could say, "That's art, not marketing," but the distinction isn't that obvious to talented directors. Not surprisingly, directors between feature projects often tide themselves over directing commercials. For example, Ridley Scott made Blade Runner in 1982 and then the landmark 1984 ad introducing the Apple Mac at the 1984 Super Bowl.

So, in an industry in which it's possible, if you have a big enough budget, to hire Sir Ridley to direct your next TV commercial, why the fascination with Bargh's dopey little experiment? 

One reason is that there's a lot of uncertainty in the marketing and advertising game. Nineteenth Century department store mogul John Wanamaker famously said that half his advertising budget was wasted, he just didn't know which half. 

Worse, things change. A TV commercial that excited viewers a few years ago often strikes them as dull and unfashionable today. Today, Scott's 1984 ad might remind people subliminally, from picking up on certain stylistic commonalities, of how dopey Scott's Prometheus was last summer, or how lame the Wachowski Siblings 1984-imitation V for Vendetta was, and Apple doesn't need their computers associated with that stuff.

Naturally, social psychologists want to get in on a little of the big money action of marketing. Gladwell makes a bundle speaking to sales conventions, and maybe they can get some gigs themselves. And even if their motivations are wholly academic, it's nice to have your brother-in-law, the one who makes so much more money than you do doing something boring in the corporate world, excitedly forward you an article he read that mentions your work.

("Priming" theory is also the basis for the beloved concept of "stereotype threat," which seems to offer a simple way to close those pesky Gaps that beset society: just get everybody to stop noticing stereotypes, and the Gaps will go away!)

But why do the marketers love hearing about these weak tea little academic experiments, even though they do much more powerful priming on the job? I suspect one reason is because these studies are classified as Science, and Science is permanent. As some egghead in Europe pointed out, Science is Replicable. Once the principles of Scientific Manipulation are uncovered, then they can just do their marketing jobs on autopilot. No more need to worry about trends and fads. 

But, how replicable are these priming experiments?

From the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Power of Suggestion 
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.

80 comments:

Anonymous said...

Are you trying to tell us that it was all bogus?

I believe in the power of priming and stereotype threat! The political class do it all the time.

Thursday said...

Any thoughts on Carol Dweck's research. It kind of seems to be of the same ilk.

Anyway, you can access all her papers here.

dirk said...

Fascinating post, although I will quibble that you are talking about "fashion" not "art".

Steve Sailer said...

"I will quibble that you are talking about "fashion" not "art"."

Right, it's a continuum: marketing / fashion / art. The differences are real, but so are the similarities.

Anonymous said...

Psychology... from teaching people to know themselves to manipulating people for the interests of elites.

From making irrational people more rational to pushing irrational buttons to gain control over their 'rationality'.

Corruption of intellectualism.

We are all fascists now.

Anonymous said...

I have a great idea. Make black kids read books that mention chop suey. They'll act more like Asian students and do better in class.

Anonymous said...

psycommerce

Henry Canaday said...

I think I will take all this seriously when someone does a study of the effects, not of obvious and brief adverting messages, but of the relentless pounding of certain themes, narratives and pictures of reality in the actual TV news and other shows and movies we watch. Might these media messages, constant and not explicitly aimed at buying habits, influence sexual behavior, dress, expectations from government, ways of conversing or voting?

Dennis Dale said...

When I see the 1984 commercial I think "who pissed off the Hooters girl?". But seriously, her appearance ensures the piece won't hold up over time. The gloomy images invoking 1984 are timeless now--we've been seeing them for half a century. No problems there.

But Scott, working in the eighties, chose as his avatar for revolutionary enlightenment what looks like a theme-restaurant waitress. He was always better at period pieces and alternate worlds. The present, not so much.

The Anti-Gnostic said...

I danced the macarena at a wedding this weekend. Now you tell me?!

Portlander said...

Come on Steve, how could you forget to mention Eddie Murphy's Rocky joke? :-)

Steve Sailer said...

Nothing looks more of it time than science fiction movies. For example, if you want to know what fashions and hairstyles in West L.A. looked like in 1984, see "Terminator."

Mr Lomez said...

"Right, it's a continuum: marketing / fashion / art."

A pretty bleak notion of art. Maybe I'm being too high-minded, but I like to think that art, by definition, transcends the ephemeral.

candid_observer said...

The interesting question here is, how long does it take for "stereotype threat" to be exposed, given what's now going down with priming? From the standpoint of experimental design and methodology, what is even the basic difference? How might one claim that priming is bogus because of unintended clues, but not stereotype threat?

One wonders if priming isn't being targeted at least in some part because it's safer to attack than stereotype threat. But it is, it strikes me, a VERY small step to go from one to the other.

If I were Aronson and Steele, I'd be mighty nervous.

Bryan Pesta said...

I did my dissertation (1997) on cognitive priming, which actually works (seeing the word sleep makes one faster to respond to the word dream, e.g.).

However, the effects are milliseconds versus one whole second, and getting them requires a tremendous degree of experimental control (e.g., control for word frequency, letter length, visual angle...). Worse, getting the effect requires dozens of trials (I used the average RT of N = 80 trails across the prime and no prime condition, just to find the effect).

I even re-started my dissertation twice because I couldn't get the main effect (I was predicting interactions, so re-starting was not a fishing expedition).

My point: RT studies are a bitch, even when well controlled, and even when based on numerous trials per condition.

So, I suspect there's no way in hell social priming is real.

I think stereotype threat is a hop/skip/jump away from suffering the same fate as Baurgh's research. I could be wrong.

Never under-estimate the power of finding significant results when tenure's on the line (one among many possible explanations for the failure to replicate).

BP

p.s. I also made a serious attempt to replicate the "ironic effects of thought suppression" research ("do not think about a white bear" makes people more likely to think about white bears). No luck. I should have went to a better school?

Ex Submarine Officer said...

What am I missing here? Sounds like social scientists have discovered you can influence people?

Anything else? Isn't this all dogma anyhow, people being nothing but blank slates waiting to be filled by the environment?

Anonymous said...

Interesting reaction to Memento, Steve. After I saw it, I found that I wasn't enjoying beer as musch as I had before.

Anonymous said...

Prometheus was "dopey"? As opposed to the HBD attempt to not only explain the universe through linearity but, selfsame, pretend that this is settled science rather than a belief system?

I think Prometheus offends many Darwinists just from what it's thematic bent is, implied by its title: the Promethean cycle (life/death as a binary code) of stealing from perceived gods, resulting in creation from destruction. The underlying ethos of Prometheus is that we simply don't know the nature of the universe, where we came from or what the structural limits are of a Higher Power.

For obvious reasons, this would either offend, or in Steve's case (as is his persona), smugly amuse an HBD'er, as they have conflated their beliefs with fact.

Again, the religious element inherent is both humorous and hypocritical from the HBD crowd. Not that the HBD/Atheist sect is ever up to engaging this point or acknowledging it at all.

To not only pretend, but fully believe, that the universe can 1) be explained by linear construction and 2) that only what we have so far perceived is all there is, is not only arrogant but, frankly, the height of tautological stupidity.

wren said...

One of the most memorable classes I took in college was on persuasion. There were loads of scary examples of people who ended up doing crazy things after being persuaded, in steps, that each step was not so bad at all.

Now I see that middle age is pretty much the same thing.

Anonymous said...

Steve, I see you slipped a Monet reference in this post and a delacroix reference in the last one. If Impressionism is something that interests you (and there's plenty of themes there which might), consider Ross King's "The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that gave the world Impressionism".
To whit, Manet was much more badass than Monet

Anonymous said...

One of the best stereotype threat/hurt-feelings threat/offense-troll stories of recent years was the lead item today over at the WSJ's Best Of The Web blog: Harvard prof/biker discovers troubling, i.e. racist output in Google's name-matching heuristics

Anonymous said...

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.


So you're saying that it's a real phenomenon that's replicated all the time, just not in a controlled experimental setting.

This would just mean that it's not science yet.

In the 18th century, electricity wasn't understood scientifically and was mainly used as a parlor trick by clever magicians who knew various methods using glass rods and the like to make electricity without really understanding it. We may be in a similar situation today where clever marketers and the like know various techniques for "priming" without really understanding why or how they work.

Anonymous said...

OT: sprinter with 10.13 speed switches to rugby.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gA5bwqVN5LM

Steve Sailer said...

"clever marketers and the like know various techniques for "priming" without really understanding why or how they work."

My guess is that priming is more like the interior decoration of the room those science experiments/parlor tricks were performed in. Robert Adam and other 18th Century designers achieved what, objectively, might seem like near perfection. And when those blue rooms were first unveiled they must have seemed close to perfect to the lucky occupants, priming them with all sorts of pleasant feelings of status and aesthetic bliss. But, the owners usually got bored after awhile, came to associate Enlightenment decorating schemes as tired and dingy, and redecorated.

Luke Lea said...

Yes, but has Bargh's dopey little experiment been replicated? Somehow I doubt it.

Anonymous said...

("Priming" theory is also the basis for the beloved concept of "stereotype threat," which seems to offer a simple way to close those pesky Gaps that beset society: just get everybody to stop noticing stereotypes, and the Gaps will go away!)

The relationship between "priming" and the "stereotype threat" may actually be the reverse of what Political Correctness predicts. That is, less intelligent people that PC claims suffer from stereotype threat may be less amenable to priming than more intelligent people. If something like priming does exist, then presumably it would involve to some degree mechanisms related to communication, training, learning ability, all of which correlate with intelligence.

This would also be consistent with those studies that show blacks have the highest self-esteem, self-confidence, etc.

David Davenport said...

I think Popeye offends many Disneyans just from what it's thematic bent is, implied by its title: the Promethean cycle (spinach/no spinach as a binary code) of stealing victory from perceived defeat by bearded villains, resulting in creation from destruction. The underlying ethos of Popeye is that we simply don't know the nature of life without Olive Oyl, where we came from or what the structural limits are of a Higher Dose of Spinach.

David Davenport said...

Steve, wasn't the often-cited Milgram electric shock experiment similarly phoney? The experimental subjects were college students. Most of them were taking courses in Prof. Milgram's Psych. Dept. They knew that Prof. Milgram wanted ee-lectrifying, non-null results:

Milgram experiment

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
...

For Milgram's other well-known experiment, see Small world experiment.


The experimenter (E) orders the teacher (T), the subject of the experiment, to give what the latter believes are painful electric shocks to a learner (L), who is actually an actor and confederate. The subject believes that for each wrong answer, the learner was receiving actual electric shocks, though in reality there were no such punishments. Being separated from the subject, the confederate set up a tape recorder integrated with the electro-shock generator, which played pre-recorded sounds for each shock level.[1]

The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures was a series of notable social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram, which measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. Milgram first described his research in 1963 in an article published in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology,[1] and later discussed his findings in greater depth in his 1974 book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View.[2]

Skip G. said...

Steve, what DID people buy with their own money at the supermarket?

Skip G. said...

Steve, what DID people buy at the supermarket with their own money?

AmericanGoy said...

The ONLY thing a person needs to know about psychology is The Rosenhan Experiment:

The Rosenhan experiment was a famous experiment into the validity of psychiatric diagnosis, conducted by psychologist David Rosenhan and published by the journal Science in 1973 under the title "On being sane in insane places".

Rosenhan's study was done in two parts. The first part involved the use of healthy associates or "pseudopatients" (three women and five men) who briefly simulated auditory hallucinations in an attempt to gain admission to 12 different psychiatric hospitals in five different States in various locations in the United States. All were admitted and diagnosed with psychiatric disorders. After admission, the pseudopatients acted normally and told staff that they felt fine and had not experienced any more hallucinations. All were forced to admit to having a mental illness and agree to take antipsychotic drugs as a condition of their release. The average time that the patients spent in the hospital was 19 days. All but one were diagnosed with schizophrenia "in remission" before their release. The second part of his study involved an offended hospital challenging Rosenhan to send pseudopatients to its facility, whom its staff would then detect. Rosenhan agreed and in the following weeks out of 193 new patients the staff identified 41 as potential pseudopatients, with 19 of these receiving suspicion from at least 1 psychiatrist and 1 other staff member. In fact Rosenhan had sent no one to the hospital.

Jeff W. said...

When you talk about artists, you have to remember that it is the audience that makes the artist.

There are at least 1000 unknown songwriters for every famous songwriter. The famous songwriters are not necessarily more talented in any way you can measure, they just are able to write a song that clicks with the public's mood at a given time. This perhaps explains why rock musicians so often produce their hits in their youth: they bond with a certain audience of a certain age at a certain time. As time passes them by, they can no longer produce the hits.

This line of thought suggests that the audience is ready to be primed to do something, such as latch on to a certain new style of music, or, more ominously, a German audience historically was ready in 1933 to listen to Hitler. Germany in 2013, needless to say, would condemn and deride Hitler.

I believe that the successful songwriter or motivator bonds with the audience in a way that is probably mostly subconscious.

tommy said...

Now, a large fraction of the buyers of Airport Books like Blink are marketing and advertising professionals, who are paid handsomely to manipulate people, and to manipulate them into not just walking slower, but into shelling out real money to buy the clients' products.

You've said it before, Steve: people make money telling people what they want to hear rather than telling them the truth. I suspect the verbally agile are good at selling themselves on their own dumb ideas when they appear to be superficially innovative or thoughtful. The most effective and passionate salesman may often be the self-deceived one, the man who is his own best sell.

It wouldn't surprise me, then, that such fellows may be easily taken in by people whose ideas sound similar to the ones they themselves might have concocted. For such individuals, I think there's a certain kind of narcissism about ideas: the ideas of others sound compelling when they're not too far removed from the sort of ideas that person might have, on other occasions, been able to produce himself. It's the whole "I could have thought of that! Why didn't I think of that?" routine. When an idea isn't too far removed from their own thinking, they can not only quickly grasp the concept but they actually feel grasping such an idea compliments them.

This might explain the perennial popularity of a narrow range of slightly modified and often trite formulas among marketing types. It might also explain why such people are easily drawn to gurus. They get a kind of affirmation by not just being close to a guru, but because their own thinking was already close to that of the guru.

Moshe Rudner said...

Double D's first comment was awesome which is the only reason that I'm even considering his second comment at all. I doubt that any social experiment can ever be conducted in a perfectly sterile environment but, unlike Zimbardo's scientifically useless prison experiment, Milgram's experiments seemed to be conducted about as cleanly as he possibly could and I believe they (along with similar ones) are replicated exceedingly often. His book "Obedience" displays some pretty sweet methodology including having experimented with diverse groups of subjects.

Again, I'm only taking the time to consider the matter at all because I liked Davenport's prior comment so much and think that he's therefore not likely to be a knee-jerk sort and perhaps knows something I don't but from what I know, Milgram's experiment (while as imperfect as an experiment with humans must be) is almost the gold standard for such experiments which is why his shocking finding is so worthy of astonishment, horror and serious reflection.

Moshe
www.exoticjewishhistory.com

typed by phone

Harry Baldwin said...

the relentless pounding of certain themes, narratives and pictures of reality in the actual TV news and other shows and movies we watch. Might these media messages, constant and not explicitly aimed at buying habits, influence sexual behavior, dress, expectations from government, ways of conversing or voting?

Absolutely, as Steve has written, "What goes unsaid eventually goes unthought."

In the past 40 years, we've had a relentless media effort to connect violent crime with gun ownership. It has been successful, at least with those disposed to accept the message. At the same time, we've had an equally relentless media effort to disconnect violent crime and black people, to the point that race is no longer mentioned in crime reports, even when the public is told to be on the look out for the a suspect. Clearly, the Powers That Be see it in their interest to make one linkage and not another.

Similarly, the news will report the monthly increase in jobs and mention that it was not sufficient to meet to population increase, but it will never mention where that population increase comes from. The PTB clearly do not want umemployment to be associated with immigration; if that did want that association to be made, it would be very easy to do so. Instead, when I make this point to the average person, I get a confused response. They have been conditioned not to see a connection between those two things.

Al said...

"For obvious reasons, this would either offend, or in Steve's case (as is his persona), smugly amuse an HBD'er, as they have conflated their beliefs with fact.

Again, the religious element inherent is both humorous and hypocritical from the HBD crowd. Not that the HBD/Atheist sect is ever up to engaging this point or acknowledging it at all.

To not only pretend, but fully believe, that the universe can 1) be explained by linear construction and 2) that only what we have so far perceived is all there is, is not only arrogant but, frankly, the height of tautological stupidity."

What do you mean by linearity / "linear construction"?

wren said...

That persuasion class I took dealt a lot with people who were brainwashed (US soldiers by the ChiComs during the Korean War) or joined cults or ended up doing things that they never would have prior to being "persuaded" in stages.

IIRC the basic setup usually was to get people to accept one very small, innocuous thing first, and then get them to do all kinds of crazy stuff after that, in stages, on the premise that if you accepted A, of course it makes sense to accept B, because that's the kind of person you are. If you don't, cognitive dissonance ensues, or something.

I think the concept of "grooming" by perverts and pimps is similar.

I see people with a gazillion tattoos and piercings and wonder how the heck it happened to them, and suspect something similar.

If some social priming happened for that first little itty bitty tattoo, and it did, the results are in fact still significant. My goodness, it is a genuine tipping point.

Like the android said "Big things have small beginnings."

billyjoerob said...


"I believe that the successful songwriter or motivator bonds with the audience in a way that is probably mostly subconscious."

There is probably something to this (although it sounds definitional). Steve Martin is not a funny guy, but for a few months or more in 1979, he was huge. The audience was perfectly in tune with all his jokes. Of course, by 1979 he had done thousands of shows, so he knew exactly what the audience wanted. His father was so convinced he wasn't funny that he wrote articles in the local paper saying, My son is not funny. And who can explain Huey Lewis and the News?

Robert Bunyan Allbright said...

The following URL will "prime" most people to chuckle to themselves from time to time for several days. It will do exactly the same thing when it is viewed several years later. It is not only funny on purpose, it has immense documentary value; unlike almost any other Hollywood or Madison Ave. product:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1G_FaFdGpk

Anonymous said...

What about the possible "priming" effects of novel superstimuli like contemporary pornography?

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cupids-poisoned-arrow/201110/can-you-trust-your-johnson

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cupids-poisoned-arrow/201212/exposure-therapy-hocd

http://washingtonexaminer.com/study-watching-porn-boosts-support-for-same-sex-marriage/article/2520461

Silver said...

Whoah, the articles talks about 'Replicators' and you bring up Blade Runner. Hello, Replicator--Replicant? Are you sure you're not primed?

wren said...

I suppose my point is that if you can prime a high school student into wearing an Obama shirt, or putting an Obama sticker on her car, you may end up with a lifelong supporter.

thriving meth-lab sector said...

OT - masters' degrees worthless, CNN Money has learned

For some of the more WhiNey commenters around here who puzzle over Rhode Island's high unemployment in spite of its commendable racial composition, there's a treat for you at the end of that little article...

Anonymous said...

came to associate Enlightenment decorating schemes as tired and dingy, and redecorated

There is something to iSteve's iNsight there... When ever do you see a nice Versailles/St. Petersburg style of wallpaper any more, except in some Trent Reznor goth or "indie blues band" music video, where the singer is hunched over or stray animals are milling about too... But a venerable lazy line of artistry, almost like a type of cliched "quoting," is to associate that period with a giant miasma of Flaubert and absinthe and, ya know, they were all just decadent anyway... Proof being? They're not still around--like the Romans. They were also totally decadent, man

dearieme said...

Global Priming.

Auntie Analogue said...


Mr. Canaday got it: it's the constant drumbeat of the Multi-Culti Diversity Narrative - the endlessly repeated Big Lie - that has greater, deeper, longer-lasting impact than the pinpricks of priming. But when the Big Lie drumbeat, which is now hammered into people from pre-school on, is combined with priming, these form a mutually reinforcing system of propaganda with enormous, deep, prolonged impact. One example of this is the great number of Americans who mindlessly parrot the "We Are A Nation Of Immigrants" mantra to the delight of the Globalist Power Elite bent on driving down wages. Another example is found in a great many IMDb website amateur film reviews, in which reviewers schooled after the 1960's constantly find, in films dating back to the silents, no end of "homosexual subtext." Same goes for the millions who see racism and Islamophobia everyplace they look.

Yes, Mr. Sailer, "nothing looks more of it[s] time than science fiction movies." In this respect my favorite is William Cameron Menzies 1936 film 'Things To Come,' written by H.G. Wells. This gem, made before rocketry proved to be the optimum method for launching people into space, uses a colossal cannon to blast people out from the hold of earth's gravity - can you imagine the liquefying effect of so violent a launch blast on the crew of the shell-capsule!

Dennis Dale said...

Studying prejudice in the Netherlands is different from studying it in the United States.

Yeah, imagine that. People in different environments exhibit different forms of what goes for prejudice.

slumber_j said...

From the original play The Philadelphia story (which is significantly wittier than the screenplay, amazingly):

Liz: Use the word "Wanamaker" in a sentence.

Mike: OK, I'll bite.

Liz: I met a girl this morning. I hate her but I --.

Mike: All right, I get you. But you're wrong.

Chicago said...

Trying to influence people to do what someone else would like them to is as old as humanity. It runs the gamut from the Dale Carnegie style of being persuasive to seeking religious converts all the way to gaining cult-like control and the search for a Manchurian Candidate.
Advertising pretty much centers around the fairly banal practice of getting people to get rid of their surplus cash by promoting a feeling of wanting some product or buying X rather than Y. Money is to be coaxed out of one pocket and into another, which is hardly the most sinister thing going on out there.

Anne said...

I don't see how priming effects are supposed to wear off,, when presumably the subjects of any one experiment have never been primed before. Blue rooms got old because the same people sat in lots of different blue rooms year after year. But the college kids being experimented on today have not been subjected to these experiments on a continuous basis since the first studies, nor are these studies such a big part of the culture that the kids could have acquired an immunity to them second hand.

Maybe you could argue that the cultural association between old people and slowness has changed since they started doing these experiments. Maybe now college kids assume that all old people are like those sprightly ladies in arthritis medicine commercials.

Anononymous said...

Dennis Dale said...
When I see the 1984 commercial I think "who pissed off the Hooters girl?".
chose as his avatar for revolutionary enlightenment what looks like a theme-restaurant waitress.


And the revolutionary enlightenment would wear suits and ties and fedora hats?, no wait, that's what they see as the grey people marching in the commercial.

If you look at a Soviet propaganda or parades from the early 20's and 30's you will see women in athletic gear as a theme.

And the hammer thing is a little over the top symbolically.

Anonymous said...

http://freebeacon.com/sexual-harassment-investigation-may-delay-hagel-vote/

Anonymous said...

Use the word "Wanamaker" in a sentence.

The Wanamaker came to Kansas in the middle of a dusty day.

Anonymous said...

I remember when primimg was called subliminal seduction.

Kylie said...

"IIRC the basic setup usually was to get people to accept one very small, innocuous thing first, and then get them to do all kinds of crazy stuff after that, in stages, on the premise that if you accepted A, of course it makes sense to accept B, because that's the kind of person you are. If you don't, cognitive dissonance ensues, or something."

Yep. Integrated lunchrooms led to Obamacare.

I call it "the thin end of the wedge".

helene edwards said...

Well, I'm around college students all the time, and they really do walk slowly now. Much different from 10 yrs. ago. Also, there's a new trend, especially for women, of walking in the middle of the street rather than using the sidewalk. It's becoming big in the Bay Area.

Anonymous said...

Sigmund Freud nephew, Edward Barneys understood mass psychology and how should be used:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prTarrgvkjo

Anonymous said...

"And who can explain Huey Lewis and the News?"

Their early work was a little too new wave for my tastes, but when Sports came out in '83, I think they really came into their own, commercially and artistically. The whole album has a clear, crisp sound, and a new sheen of consummate professionalism that really gives the songs a big boost. He's been compared to Elvis Costello, but I think Huey has a far more bitter, cynical sense of humor.

Anonymous said...

"For some of the more WhiNey commenters around here who puzzle over Rhode Island's high unemployment in spite of its commendable racial composition, there's a treat for you at the end of that little article..." - The worst part about that were the comments about the people who claimed that because they were able to "just get a job" immediately back in the sixties that anyone should be able to do the same, and that these people did something wrong to be where they are.

I'm beginning to think that this is well poisoning.

pat said...

Steve Sailer, kicking cripples again.

I actually have a psychology degree so I have some credentials to declare authoritatively -psychology is bunk. Except for IQ.

I went into psychology for sound reasons. I wanted to meet women and there were no women in economics. It worked. I married a Freudian. Ouch!

The other virtue of psychology is that it requires undergraduates to take statistics. Those who want to avoid math usually slide down into sociology, the ultimately silly academic "discipline".

Most of the appeal of psychology is in the classic "Psychology Today" article. Those relate some fascinating truth of human behavior like "priming". All of this stuff is pretty weak tea. Its just notions thst appeal to the popular imagination driven not by reality but by fashion. In magazine publishing you need a certain number of "fascinating" stories each month.

We know that more than half of all medical papers that report new findings turn out to be unreplicatable. Should be be surprised that virtually all of these "fascinating" findings also turn out to be bogus? Debunking such weak and implausible studies is indeed kicking a cripple.

I was an honest-to-God Internet pioneer. I had a web based merchandising site up in 1994. I wrote it all in Microsoft technologies before ASP, before VBScript. But we couldn't sell anybody anything. Almost everybody in that business failed. My distinction is that I failed first.

Then one day I heard a show on NPR. A marketing guy reported that his researches had determined that people only would buy something after they had handled it three times. Ah Ha! We were trying to sell furniture online. No one could feel it. Science proved it! I wasn't a failure. It was the nature of the sales medium not me.

If any of that were true of course, Amazon wouldn't exist. The simple truth is that all these soft behavioral sciences don't really uncover truths at all. They, at best, find connections that are true today for only some people under some conditions. Next season we will have more new fascinating findings.

Priming may have been more or less true at one time but even so it was always a weak and rather pointless finding. Social psychology is, I repeat, bunk.

Albertosaurus

Mr. Anon said...

"Anonymous helene edwards said...

Well, I'm around college students all the time, and they really do walk slowly now."

Could that be because they're always staring into a smart-phone?

"Also, there's a new trend, especially for women, of walking in the middle of the street rather than using the sidewalk. It's becoming big in the Bay Area."

I guess that's better than admitting the possibility that you might be a racist. Doesn't go to well with the whole walking while texting thing though.

Mr. Anon said...

"Anonymous Auntie Analogue said...

In this respect my favorite is William Cameron Menzies 1936 film 'Things To Come,' written by H.G. Wells. This gem, made before rocketry proved to be the optimum method for launching people into space, uses a colossal cannon to blast people out from the hold of earth's gravity - can you imagine the liquefying effect of so violent a launch blast on the crew of the shell-capsule!"

Yes, but think of all the money one would save on the life-support systems.

Mr. Anon said...

"thriving meth-lab sector said...

OT - masters' degrees worthless, CNN Money has learned"

Forget about the worthless degrees these people racked up; consider the actual jobs they applied for - this kind of counselor, that kind of counselor, some other kind of counselor, "HR professional", etc. It is amazing how many jobs in this country are just so much bullshit. We really are a fat, dumb, happy country to be able to take such waste for granted.

I would have had far more respect for those people if they had sought out a job as produce department manager in a super-market. It's honest work that's valuable to society, and only requires a high-school diploma.

Dennis Dale said...

Their early work was a little too new wave for my tastes, but when Sports came out in '83, I think they really came into their own, commercially and artistically. The whole album has a clear, crisp sound, and a new sheen of consummate professionalism that really gives the songs a big boost. He's been compared to Elvis Costello, but I think Huey has a far more bitter, cynical sense of humor.

Let's see you get seats at Dorsia now, you sonofabitch!

Silver said...

I don't see how priming effects are supposed to wear off,, when presumably the subjects of any one experiment have never been primed before. Blue rooms got old because the same people sat in lots of different blue rooms year after year. But the college kids being experimented on today have not been subjected to these experiments on a continuous basis since the first studies, nor are these studies such a big part of the culture that the kids could have acquired an immunity to them second hand.

I wanted to ask the same thing but, being tired, I thought maybe I missed something and didn't want to sound stupid. Now that I'm not the only one thinking this I'll add my name to the chorus requesting an explanation (which reminds me of another, probably more successful, social psychology experiment). Sailer obviously thinks he's onto something here because he's doubled down with another post on it.

San Franciscan non-monk said...

Love this post. Steve, you are connecting disparate concepts like a caffeinated 22 year old! And you're bring the wisdom and accumulated knowledge of middle age with it. Bravo.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Anon said...
"Anonymous Auntie Analogue said...

In this respect my favorite is William Cameron Menzies 1936 film 'Things To Come,' written by H.G. Wells. This gem, made before rocketry proved to be the optimum method for launching people into space, uses a colossal cannon to blast people out from the hold of earth's gravity - can you imagine the liquefying effect of so violent a launch blast on the crew of the shell-capsule!"

Yes, but think of all the money one would save on the life-support systems.

Besides, men back then were made of sterner stuff, and were more likely to survive a little acceleration and hold their breaths for a few seconds. Then it's off to annex Mars, and convert the heathen natives, and bring in canals, roads, heavy industry, compulsory military schooling, the draft, and fluoride.

helene edwards said...

Could that be because they're always staring into a smart-phone?

I meant when they don't have a cellphone in hand, though the pace could be determined by the fact they mostly do. The new Bay Area phenomenon of young women walking in the street has nothing to do with avoiding blacks, since it's usually seen in heavily SWPL areas. I assume it's the feminist analogue of the black "rules are not for us" attitude.

playing early tomorrow said...

Let's see you get seats at Dorsia now, you sonofabitch.

Never having being all that into music, I can say dispassionately to all you Huey haters that you never got quif like the quif on offer at Huey performances at various Marin County venues from
'80-'84. It will never be seen again.

Anonymous said...

Debunking such weak and implausible studies is indeed kicking a cripple.

There is nothing morally wrong with kicking a cripple, if it leads to improvements on the part of said cripple (many of them are lazy and spoiled), or the greater good of society.

Dennis Dale said...

Debunking such weak and implausible studies is indeed kicking a cripple.

Are you kidding? A cripple is powerless. Do you think Bargh, Gladwell et al are powerless? These aren't cripples, these are charlatans--taken for respectable intellectuals (I want to do a "real men of genius" parody: "here's to you, Malcom Gladwell...")

For the Huey Lewis fan:
Did you know that Whitney Houston's debut LP, called simply Whitney Houston, had four number one singles on it? Did you know that, PET?
It's hard to choose a favorite among so many great tracks, but "The Greatest Love of All" is one of the best, most powerful songs ever written about self-preservation, dignity. Its universal message crosses all boundaries and instills one with the hope that it's not too late to better ourselves. Since, PET, it's impossible in this world we live in to empathize with others, we can always empathize with ourselves. It's an important message, crucial really. And it's beautifully stated on the album.

What irretrievable wisdom you must have took with you, Nippy! And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!

Dennis Dale said...

just saw this on Drudge:
Belief in Global Warming rises with Temperature

Related?

panjoomby said...

Yay Pat/Albertosaurus! "psychology is bunk. Except for IQ." I got a PhD in psychology & I totally agree with you. it's embarrassing that the only science in psych must be kept under wraps (due to un-PC connotations). it's hilarious that the only power psychs have is due to people's belief in it - they think we know something worthwhile (we don't, except for ability, stats, tests & measurement) & that gives them faith in our "healing words" - it's total bunk! except for the un-PC IQ part:)

David Davenport said...

Gosh, the late Dr. Stanley Milgram has contemporary fans. Here's the web site ww.stanleymilgram.com/, which says:

The purpose of this website is to be a source of accurate information about the life and work of one of the most outstanding social scientists of our time, the social psychologist Stanley Milgram. His untimely death at the age of 51 on December 20, 1984, ended a life of scientific inventiveness and controversy. But his research and writings continue to influence contemporary culture and thought.

...

In August, 1976, CBS presented a prime-time dramatization of the obedience experiments and the events surrounding them, titled "The Tenth Level." William Shatner had the starring role as Stephen Hunter, the Milgram-like scientist. Milgram served as a consultant for the film. While it contains a lot of fictional elements, it powerfully conveyed enough of the essence of the true story for its writer, George Bellak, to receive Honorable Mention in the American Psychological Association's media awards for 1977.

. . . . .

Milgram's "shock machine" still exists. It can be found at the Archives of the History of American Psychology at the University of Akron. For a number of years, beginning in 1992, it was part of a traveling psychology exhibit created by the American Psychological Association.

...

Would Milgram find less obedience if he conducted his experiments today? I doubt it. To go beyond speculation on this question, I carried out the following statistical analysis. I gathered all of Milgram's standard obedience experiments and the replications conducted by other researchers. The experiments spanned a 25-year period from 1961 to 1985. I did a correlational analysis relating each study's year of publication and the amount of obedience it found. I found a zero-correlation-that is, no relationship whatsoever. In other words, on the average, the later studies found no more or less obedience than the ones conducted earlier. A more detailed report of this finding, as well as the finding on sex-differences described in the previous paragraph, can be found in my article, "The Milgram paradigm after 35 years: Some things we now know about obedience to authority," which appears in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 1999, Vol. 25, pp. 955-978.

. . . . .

Rock musician, Peter Gabriel, was a serious and avid admirer of Milgram. His album, "So," which came out in 1986, contains a track titled, "We do what we're told-Milgram's 37." What does the "37" refer to? The answer is posted in the Question of the Month section of the website


I was wrong. The Milgram shock experiment has been replicated lots of times. And no, Dr. Milgram was not secretly sponsored by the CIA in an effort to refine interrogation techniques, unlike the younger Dr. Timothy Leary at Harvard.

Anonymous said...

Patasaurus, I took psychology as an elective my junior year in parochial high school. The class was me and 31 girls. I sat next to a well-formed redhead who was later my prom date.

That's pretty much all I remember.

Anonymous said...

The city with the largest falloff in industrial employment was Dallas. It lost more than 3,400 workers in the sector last year to 72,519. It’s now ranked the ninth-largest industrial city, down from No. 7 a year earlier.Houston is the biggest center of industrial employment among U.S. cities, with 242,212 such positions after a 3.1% growth over the past year. It’s far ahead of the second-largest, New York, which has 146,340 industrial jobs after a 3.8% increase Well, this is interesting Houston is what republicans state growing with low teax policies while Dallas isn't.

neil craig said...

Ticjard Feynman did a wonderful lecture on "Cargo Cult Science" (widely available online).

His prime point was that science isn't just wearing a lab coat and saying the debate is over (this was long before tan alarmist claimed to be a consensus indeed it may go back to when they were still predicting an ice age).

However he also makes a secondary point about the need for results to be replicable and replicated and takes the social "scientists" apart by providing the example of one rigorously conducted experiment by somebody who he considered a real scientist and the way his successors had all just taken it as read and extended the experiment but without replicating the original experiment to confirm they were doing their version by the same parameters.

That it has taken so many decades for this experiment to be repeated suggests the "social sciences" have not got much more scientific inm the interim.

Anonymous said...

Government school itself is a huge Milgram experiment: bullying and peer pressure.

Anonymous said...

Projects on the Irvine Ranch—including Stonegate, Portola Springs, Woodbury and Laguna Altura—reported 1,434 sales last year, placing it at the top in California and No. 2 nationwide, up from No. 4 nationally a year earlier.

That was 670 more sales than 2011, a nearly 88% increase that accounted for the largest year-over-year bump in total sales of any project in the country last year, according to the report.

The Irvine area “continues to be a desired location by buyers in Orange County and abroad,” thanks to good schools, a strong job base and numerous amenities, according to John Burns Consulting’s Nicole Murray.

“Specifically, the schools attract local and international buyers,” she said.
The aisans are coming, immirgation to Calif now more asian than hispanic. Hispanics still have the baby edge but form a psychological view Irivne shows a new trend with imirgation from the far east.

David Davenport said...

The experiments spanned a 25-year period from 1961 to 1985. I did a correlational analysis relating each study's year of publication and the amount of obedience it found. I found a zero-correlation-that is, no relationship whatsoever. In other words, on the average, the later studies found no more or less obedience than the ones conducted earlier.

But what does that really mean? What was the variance of all the studies, regardless of age of the study/experiment?