Mar 12, 2014

In the Previous Episodes of the Tale of Social Priming and Reproducibility


We have lined up a nice set of posts responding to the recent special section in PoPS on social priming and replication/reproducibility, which we will publish in the coming weeks. It has proven easier to find critics of social priming than to find defenders of the phenomenon, and if there are primers out there who want to chime in they are most welcome and may contact us at

The special section in PoPS was immediately prompted by this wonderful November 2012 issue from PoPS on replicability in psychology (open access!), but the Problems with Priming started prior to this. For those of you who didn’t seat yourself in front of the screen with a tub of well-buttered pop-corn every time behavioral priming made it outside the trade journals, I’ll provide some back-story, and links to posts and articles that frames the current response.

The mitochondrial Eve of behavioral priming is Bargh’s Elderly Prime1. The unsuspecting participants were given scrambled sentences, and were asked to create proper sentences out of four of the five words in each. Some of the sentences included words like Bingo or Flordia – words that may have made you think of the elderly, if you were a student in New York in the mid nineties. Then, they measured the speed with which the participant walked down the corridor to return their work, and, surprising to many, those that unscrambled sentences that included “Bingo” and “Florida” walked slower than those that did not. Conclusion: the construct of “elderly” had been primed, causing participants to adjust their behavior (slower walk) accordingly. You can check out sample sentences in this Marginal Revolution post – yes, priming made it to this high-traffic economy blog.

This paper has been cited 2571 times, so far (according to Google Scholar). It even appears in Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, and has been high on the wish-list for replication on Pashler’s PsychFile Drawer. (No longer in the top 20, though).

Finally, in January 2012, Doyen, Klein, Pichon & Cleeremans (a Belgian group) published a replication attempt in PLOSone where they suggest the effect was due to demand. Ed Yong did this nice write-up of the research.

Bargh was not amused, and wrote a scathing rebuttal on his blog in the Psychology Today domain. He took it down after some time (for good reason – I think it can be found, but I won’t look for it.). Ed commented on this too.

A number of good posts from blogging psychological scientists also commented on the story. A sampling are Sanjay Srivastava on his blog Hardest Science, Chris Chambers on NeuroChambers, and Cedar Riener on his Cedarsdigest.

The British Psychological Society published a notice about it in The Psychologist which links to additional commentary. In May, Ed Yong had an article in Nature discussing the status of non-replication in psychology in general, but where he also brings up the Doyen/Bargh controversy. On January 13, the Chronicle published a summary of what had happened.

But, prior to that, Daniel Kahneman made a call for psychologists to clean up their act as far as behavioral priming goes. Ed Yong (again) published two pieces about it. One in Nature and one on his blog.

The controversies surrounding priming continued in the spring of 2013. This time it was David Shanks who, as a hobby (from his video - scroll down below the fold) had taken to attempting to replicate priming of intelligence, work originally done by Dijksterhuis and van Knippenberg in 1998. He had his students perform a series of replications, all of which showed no effect, and was then collected in this PLOSone paper.

Dijksterhuis retorted in the comment section2. Rolf Zwaan blogged about it. Then, Nature posted a breathless article suggesting that this was a fresh blow for us who are Social Psychologists.

Now, most of us who do science thought instead that this was science working just like it ought to be working, and blogged up a storm about it – with some of the posts (including one of mine) linked in Ed Yong’s “Missing links” feature. The links are all in the fourth paragraph, above the scroll, and includes additional links to discussions on replicability, and the damage done by a certain Dutch fraudster.

So here you are, ready for the next set of installments.

1 Ancestral to this is Srull & Wyer’s (1979) story of Donald, who is either hostile or kind, depending on which set of sentences the participant unscrambled in that earlier experiment that had nothing to do with judging Donald.

2 A nice feature. No waiting years for the retorts to be published in the dead tree variant we all get as PDF’s anyway.

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