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Priming Revisited

In 1966, psychologists (Eagle, Wolitzky, and Kleim) wanted to know more about implicit memory – memory of experiences that unconsciously influence the performances of a task – so they had participants watch three one-second clips of a tree trunk and draw a nature scene. Here was the catch, one group of participants were shown a normal trunk (the one on the left), and the other group was shown a trunk that was subtly outlined like a duck (the one of the right). To the researchers surprise, those who were shown the trunk that resembled a duck were more likely to depict a duck in their nature scene compared to those who were shown the trunk that didn’t resemble a duck, even though the students who depicted a duck in their nature scene never reported seeing a duck.

This experiment was one of the first to demonstrate the power of priming, a psychology term that wikipedia defines as the, “implicit memory effect in which exposure to a stimulus influences a response to a later stimulus.” Since the 1960s, a lot more priming studies have been done, the bulk of them coming from Yale psychologist John Bargh.

In one experiment (some of you may know this from Gladwell’s Blink) Bargh, Chen, and Barrows asked participants to make four-word sentences from 30 sets of five word combinations. The experimenters primed participants by embedding “rude” and “polite” words into the five word combinations; the words included: Aggressively, bold, rude, bother, disturb, intrude, annoyingly, respect, honor, considerate, appreciate, patiently, polite, yield, and sensitively. When the participants finished, they were instructed to deliver the test to an experimenter who was in another room, and ask for further instruction. Whenever a participant arrived in the experimenters office, however, Bargh made sure that the experimenter was busy talking to someone else – usually a confederate who was having “trouble” understanding some directions. Bargh measured the amount of time participants waited until they interrupted the conversation, and found that participants who were primed with the “rude” words interrupted the conversation on average about 4 minutes earlier than participants who were primed with the “polite” words.

In the same experiment, Bargh demonstrated that people primed with old words like “Florida,” “Grey,” and “Wrinkle,” walked slower than those who were not. And found that African-Americans who were primed with negative stereotypes of their race actdc more hostile and irritable than caucasians. Bargh concluded that “the automatic activation of one’s stereotypes of social groups, by the mere presence of group features (e.g., African-American faces), can cause one to behave in line with that stereotype without realizing it.”

Studies like these have been replicated by Bargh and others. Psychologists have found that sports drinks influence people to perform physical activities better; food advertising influences people to eat more; the presence of a backpack causes people to be more cooperative than the presence of a brief case; and that the temperature of a cup can influence how people perceive interpersonal relationships (turns out that if you are holding a hot coffee you will find strangers much more friendly than if you are holding a cold soda). Along with other findings in psychology and neuroscience, priming has clearly shown that no matter how Socratic you get, you will never be able to access the mental mechanisms that constitute your brain (the go-to metaphor here is an iceberg, with the tip representing the conscious and the rest representing the unconscious).

However, in a 2006 article in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Bargh admitted that priming studies had reached their “childhood’s end,” and that he “[needed] to move on to research questions such as how these multiple effects of single primes occur,”  and “how these multiple simultaneous priming influences in the environment get distilled into nonconscious social action that has to happen serially, in real time.”

The former point is the generation problem, and it highlights our misguided tendency to interpret priming studies as having to do with single concepts. For example, if experimenters are priming a participant with the idea of generosity, “the effect of the prime… just depends on which dependent variable the experimenter happens to be interested in.” This means that because generosity could manifest itself in a number of ways, it is a mistake to believe that it influences behavior in just one way. Overcoming the generation problem, then, requires an understanding of all the different ways a single prime could influence behavior.

The later point is the reduction problem, and it asks how brains reduce and distill stimulus rich environments “in a world in which you can only do one thing at a time.” In other words, Bargh wants to know how and why our cognition discriminates one prime from another. For example, if we are walking down a city street, our senses are exposed to a wide variety of stimulus: smells, sights, sounds, etc. The question is, which won wins?

I’m not sure how these problems could be overcome any time soon because they seem to require an understanding of the brain that is years away. Until then, psychologists must remain humble. But, as Bargh says, “By constraining and informing our models of nonconscious processes in social psychology with theoretical and empirical developments in these related fields of inquiry, we can help assure that research in our own little neck of the woods will continue to matter in the long run, and to the larger picture.”

Bargh, J., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71 (2), 230-244 DOI: 10.1037//0022-3514.71.2.230

FRIEDMAN, R., & ELLIOT, A. (2008). Exploring the influence of sports drink exposure on physical endurance Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9 (6), 749-759 DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2007.12.001

Harris, J., Bargh, J., & Brownell, K. (2009). Priming effects of television food advertising on eating behavior. Health Psychology, 28 (4), 404-413 DOI: 10.1037/a0014399

Williams, L., & Bargh, J. (2008). Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth Science, 322 (5901), 606-607 DOI: 10.1126/science.1162548Bargh, J. (2006). What have we been priming all these years? On the development, mechanisms, and ecology of nonconscious social behavior European Journal of Social Psychology, 36 (2), 147-168 DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.336

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great post. From now on, I will always wear a backpack and hand out warm drinks to people I meet.

    One question: What’s an “old word”?

    July 11, 2011
  2. sammcnerney #

    Good question, I am not sure exactly, and I don’t think the researchers are either. But I would say that they are words that elicit sentiments that have to do with oldness i.e., old people, ancient history, old memories, anything really. This is part of the generation problem I think – researchers just aren’t sure what the words are eliciting, or what “old words” are.

    July 11, 2011
  3. Joe Bol #

    In Bargh’s et al 1996 qtudy, “old words” were words related to the elderly stereotype.

    July 14, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Ah, much better answer!

      I suppose the next question is, what is the elderly stereotype?

      July 14, 2011
  4. sammcnerney #

    I went back a thought about this one a bit more. I think the problem Bargh is having is that he is not sure what is being evoked when “the elderly stereotype” or “old words” is being activated. He wants to know a single prime can have multiple effects. If the single prime is “the elderly stereotype” then, couldn’t there be many other influences aside from people walking slower? What about people talking slower, or being more partial to bingo? Or wanting to go to Florida? It seems that there could be a huge list of influences that “the elderly stereotype” could evoke.

    July 14, 2011
  5. Anonymous #

    I don’t think we are as far off understanding which stimulus wins out as you may think, at least at a conceptual level (with abstracted supporting models).

    Computational decision-making models are already being articulated in fields like neuroeconomics, which rely on the competition of neuro-modulators like dopamine and similar to predict what we pay attention to.

    There is also much research on the science of attention itself which has models for understanding the funnels that stimuli go through in order to reach pre-conscious semantic activiation, unconscious and conscious appraisal and memorisation, etc.

    While it is more difficult to know on an individual case-by-case basis what someone is likely to pay attention to and which associations might be semantically activated (i.e.primed), we have the frameworks and models for doing so *in theory* 🙂

    July 18, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Indeed. Perhaps I am being a bit too pessimistic, I have to admit, I love saying that neuroscience is decades away from X or Y (its an easy way to conclude a thought). Joking aside, though, I honestly do think assertions like these have a grain of truth to them.

      I am a huge skeptic when it comes to the computational stuff. I just don’t think a computational model will ever come remotely close to explaining human cognition – an incredibly complex thing. Helpful nonetheless, but I am just not a big fan.

      July 18, 2011
  6. Anonymous #

    Agreed. It’s easier to think of these things conceptually than to apply them with rigour. We know enough for someone to write a popular science book about it, but not necessarily for it to filter down into practical domains of science and business… yet 🙂

    July 19, 2011

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