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.


Mar 26, 2014

Behavioral Priming: Time to Nut Up or Shut Up


In the epic movie "Zombieland", one of the main protagonists –Tallahassee, played by Woody Harrelson– is about to enter a zombie-infested supermarket in search of Twinkies. Armed with a banjo, a baseball bat, and a pair of hedge shears, he tells his companion it is "time to nut up or shut up". In other words, the pursuit of happiness sometimes requires that you expose yourself to grave danger. Tallahasee could have walked away from that supermarket and its zombie occupants, but then he would never have discovered whether or not it contained the Twinkies he so desired.

At its not-so-serious core, Zombieland is about leaving one's comfort zone and facing up to your fears. This I believe is exactly the challenge that confronts the proponents of behavioral priming today. To recap, the phenomenon of behavioral priming refers to unconscious, indirect influences of prior experiences on actual behavior. For instance, presenting people with words associated with old age ("Florida", "grey", etc.) primes the elderly stereotype and supposedly makes people walk more slowly; in the same vein, having people list the attributes of a typical professor ("confused", "nerdy", etc.) primes the concept of intelligence and supposedly makes people answer more Trivia questions correctly.

In recent years, the phenomenon of behavioral priming has been scrutinized with increasing intensity. Crucial to the debate is that many (if not all) of the behavioral priming effects appear to vanish like thin air in the hands of other researchers. Many of these researchers –from now on, the skeptics– have reached the conclusion that behavioral priming effects are elusive, brought about mostly by confirmation bias, the use of questionable research practices, and selective reporting.


Mar 19, 2014

If You Have Data, Use It When Theorizing


There is a reason data collection is part of the empirical cycle. If you have a good theory that allows for what Platt (1964) called ‘strong inferences’, then statistical inferences from empirical data can be used to test theoretical predictions. In psychology, as in most sciences, this testing is not done in a Popperian fashion (where we consider a theory falsified if the data does not support our prediction), but we test ideas in Lakatosian lines of research, which can either be progressive or degenerative (e.g., Meehl, 1990). In (meta-scientific) theory, we judge (scientific) theories based on whether they have something going for them.

In scientific practice, this means we need to evaluate research lines. One really flawed way to do this is to use ‘vote-counting’ procedures, where you examine the literature, and say: "Look at all these significant findings! And there are almost no non-significant findings! This theory is the best!” Read Borenstein, Hedges, Higgins, & Rothstein (2006) who explain “Why Vote-Counting Is Wrong” (p. 252 – but read the rest of the book while you’re at it).


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 oscblog@googlegroups.com.

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.