Apr 9, 2014

Expectations of replicability and variability in priming effects, Part I: Setting the scope and some basic definitions


We are probably thought of as "defenders" of priming effects and along with that comes the expectation that we will provide some convincing argument for why priming effects are real. We will do no such thing. The kinds of priming effects under consideration (priming of social categories which result in behavioral priming effects) is a field with relatively few direct replications1 and we therefore lack good estimates of the effect size of any specific effect. Judgments about the nature of such effects can only be made after thorough, systematic research, which will take some years still (assuming priming researchers change their research practices). And of course, we must be open to the possibility that further data will show any given effect to be small or non-existent.

One really important thing we could do to advance the field to that future ideal state is to stop calling everything priming. It appears now, especially with the introduction of the awful term "social priming," that any manipulation used by a social cognition researcher can be called priming and, if such a manipulation fails to have an effect, it is cheerfully linked to this nebulous, poorly-defined class of research called "social priming." There is no such thing as "social priming." There is priming of social categories (elderly, professor) and priming of motivational terms (achievement) and priming of objects (flags, money) and so on. And there are priming effects at the level of cognition (increased activation of concepts) or affect (valence, arousal, or emotions) or behavior (walking, trivial pursuit performance) or physiology, and some of these priming effects will be automatic and some not (and even then recognizing the different varieties of automaticity; Bargh, 1989). These are all different things and need to be treated separately.

In other words, we have to distinguish between a prime and the effect of a prime (Higgins, 1996) and even then we have to distinguish between different kinds of primes and different kinds of effects (as Lakens has done in his excellent recent SSRN paper). Priming professors may result in greater intelligence-related behavior whereas priming elderly may have no effect. And, priming professors may show effects at the behavioral level but not physiological level. But we will never understand these nuances if everything under the sun is called "social priming." For example, embodiment effects are supposed to be different than priming effects (Meier et al., 2012), yet researchers routinely link embodiment effects (and, especially, failures to replicate embodiment effects) to the same field dealing with a wide range of priming effects.

The utility of any discussion about "priming," then, is minimal if we are not being specific about which primes and which effects we're talking about. To be clear: the type of "priming" to which we will refer in these posts are priming of social categories and the behavioral effects that result from such priming. This is best illustrated in the classic Bargh, Chen, and Burrows (1996) studies on priming elderly and priming young Black male.

We next note two important clarifications of our position because both "sides" of the discussion on priming have misunderstood some of our arguments (Cesario, 2014; Cesario & Jonas, in press). Some have lumped our perspective with Stroebe and Strack's (2014) position and claimed that we believe direct replication is an unattainable illusion. At the same time, priming researchers have cited our work when confronted by replication failures as a means of undermining the value of the failed replication. (Our recommendation for what a researcher should do when a result fails to replicate illustrates why this use of our argument is inappropriate. We describe this at the end of the next blog post.)

We are in disagreement with both these interpretations. To clarify, we start with the understanding that (1) direct replication is both attainable and absolutely essential and (2) priming researchers do not do enough direct replications of their own work. (Both these points were made clear in our earlier writings, Cesario, 2014). Priming researchers need to stop doing low powered, small n studies with no direct replications. This does not produce a state of science that instills much confidence.

1 There are important exceptions that are often overlooked, for example, Correll's first-person shooter task and Payne's weapon misidentification task.


Bargh, J.A. (1989). Conditional automaticity: Varieties of automatic influence in social perception and cognition. In J. S. Uleman & J. A. Bargh (Eds.), Unintended Thoughts (pp. 3-51). New York: Guilford.

Bargh, J.A., 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, 230-244. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.71.2.230

Cesario, J. (2014). Priming, replication, and the hardest science. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9, 40-48. doi: 10.1177/1745691613513470

Cesario, J. & Jonas, K.J. (in press). Replicability and models of priming: What a resource computation framework can tell us about expectations of replicability. Social Cognition: Invited submission for the special issue on priming.

Higgins, E.T. (1996). Knowledge activation: Accessibility, applicability, and salience. In E. T. Higgins & A. W. Kruglanski (Eds.), Social psychology: Handbook of basic principles (pp. 133-168). New York: Guilford Press.

Meier, B.P., Schnall, S., Schwarz, N., & Bargh, J.A. (2012). Embodiment in social psychology. Topics in Cognitive Science, 4, 705-716. doi: 10.1111/j.1756-8765.2012.01212.x

Stroebe, W. & Strack, F. (2014). The alleged crisis and the illusion of exact replication. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9, 59-71.

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