Apr 16, 2014

Expectations of replicability and variability in priming effects, Part II: When should we expect replication, how does this relate to variability, and what do we do when we fail to replicate?


Continued from Part 1.

Now that some initial points and clarifications have been offered, we can move to the meat of the argument. Direct replication is essential to science. What does it mean to replicate an effect? All effects require a set of contingencies to be in place. To replicate an effect is to set up those same contingencies that were present in the initial investigation and observe the same effect, whereas to fail to replicate an effect is to set up those same contingencies and fail to observe the same effect. Putting aside what we mean by "same effect" (i.e., directional consistency versus magnitude), we don't see any way in which people can reasonably disagree on this point. This is a general point true of all domains of scientific inquiry.

The real question becomes, how can we know what contingencies produced the effect in the original investigation? Or more specifically, how can we separate the important contingencies from the unimportant contingencies? There are innumerable contingencies present in a scientific investigation that are totally irrelevant to obtaining the effect: the brand of the light bulb in the room, the sock color of the experimenter, whether the participant got a haircut last Friday morning or Friday afternoon. Common sense can provide some guidance, but in the end the theory used to explain the effect specifies the necessary contingencies and, by omission, the unnecessary contingencies. Therefore, if one is operating under the wrong theory, one might think some contingencies are important when really they are unimportant, and more interestingly, one might miss some necessary contingencies because the theory did not mention them as being important.

Before providing an example, it might be useful to note that, as far as we can tell, no one has offered any criticism of the logic outlined above. Many sarcastic comments have been made along the lines of, "apparently we can never learn anything because of all these mysterious moderators." And it is true that the argument can be misused to defend poor research practices. But at core, there is no criticism about the basic point that contingencies are necessary for all effects and a theory establishes those contingencies.


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.