Monday, February 6, 2012

priming effect

The priming effect is a biasing effect on judgment or action by the cognitive meaning or emotive aura of memories, words, images, or symbols. Most of us have had an experience where we misheard some words in a song, a prayer, or a pledge and then continued to mishear the same words--sometimes for years--until somebody corrects us. We might call such cases examples of self-priming. (This kind of mishearing is called a mondegreen.) Another example of priming comes from backmasking. What at first sounds like gibberish becomes a clear message after somebody tells you what to listen for. Another example of priming comes from allegedly outraged parents and a talking doll: "Little Mommy Real Loving Baby Cuddle and Coo" doll from Fisher-Price. Some folks swear the doll mumbles "Satan is king" and "Islam is the light." Some might even hear "Palin is a terrorist who is perpetrating voter fraud"  once they're told that's what the doll is saying.

A person's prejudices, preoccupations, or vital interests might prime one to mishear or misread words. For example, an evolutionary biologist might misread a headline in a magazine article as saying that Charles Darwin committed fraud when the headline actually says that Charles Dawson (of Piltdown infamy) was the miscreant. Because the headline would strike the scientist as false, however, a quick review would probably correct the misreading. In most cases of priming, however, we are unaware of the influence. Many studies have demonstrated that we are influenced in our judgments and actions both by words themselves and by the order in which words, images, or statements are presented to us or which present themselves to us naturally.

Just hearing someone utter the word 'beautiful' before you view a sunset or a work of art may influence both your judgment and the speed with which you make the judgment. Psi researcher Daryl Bem tested for precognition by modifying a standard test of priming. Instead of showing subjects a word like 'ugly' or 'beautiful' before they viewed a picture of something like a sunset or a sex act and then testing how long it takes to respond either favorably or unfavorably to the picture, Bem showed the picture first, measured response time, and then showed the "priming word."

Sometimes we see or hear things without being conscious of seeing or hearing them. Evidence of unconscious perception may become clear at a later time. For example, a person may go many years without understanding why seeing a road sign with the words “hidden meadow” in it produces sexual arousal. Then, one day she returns to a place she hadn’t been in many years. She remembers that this was where she met her first lover and the place is called Hidden Meadow.

The priming effect is evident in the unconscious influence of beliefs on actions, such as the hearing of intelligible speech by bird owners and devotees of EVP, and the ideomotor effect on dowsers, Ouija board users, table tilters in séances, assistants in facilitated communication, subjects of hypnotic suggestion, and both parties in applied kinesiology.

Priming has been shown to be powerful enough to create false memories. Priming is especially problematic in hypnotherapy. Many hypnotherapists seem unaware that they are priming their patients. The dangers of this practice are stated by Martin Orne: "The cues as to what is expected may be unwittingly communicated before or during the hypnotic procedure, either by the hypnotist or by someone else, for example, a previous subject, a story, a movie, a stage show, etc. Further, the nature of these cues may be quite obscure to the hypnotist, to the subject, and even to the trained observer."

The priming effect is also evident in the unconscious influence of symbols and metaphors, as Sigmund Freud noted long ago. There is a reason that presidents pose for photos while sitting at a desk with a library of books in the background guarded by a hanging American flag and fronted by a family photo. A recent study found that a person will usually vote more politically conservative if he or she votes or completes a survey near or in a church location. "These same voters are also more negative toward non-Christians, as compared to people who vote or answer polls near government or non-Christian buildings. Also:
A study of voting patterns in precincts of Arizona in 2000 showed that the support for propositions to increase the funding of schools was significantly greater when the polling station was in a school than when it was in a nearby location. A separate experiment showed that exposing people to images of classrooms and school lockers also increased the tendency of participants to support a school initiative. The effect of the images was larger than the difference between parents and other voters! (Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, p. 55, Macmillan, Kindle Edition.)

It's easy to understand why a person won't pick up a wallet with a red circle drawn around it or how photo cameras on traffic signals would have an effect on the number of drivers who go through red lights, but it is not so obvious why putting a poster of two eyes looking down at you above an "honesty box" for dropping money to cover the cost of tea or coffee taken would increase the amount of money collected in the same office over the same length of time when there was no poster.

Pollsters know, or should know, that they will get different results from a random sample of adults who are asked if they support affirmative action or preferential treatment of underrepresented groups. Differences in opinion will also occur if the question is put negatively rather than positively. Apparently, opposing something is not understood as the direct opposite of supporting something.

Pollsters know, or should know, that how people answer a question is affected by what question or questions were asked previously. That is why professional pollsters should and usually do have their pollsters ask the same questions to members of the sample, but ask them in different orders to different segments of those polled.

Pollsters know, or should know, that set-up questions can bias the answers to poll questions. In 1999, when Juanita Broaddrick publicly alleged that 21 years earlier William Jefferson Clinton had acted indecently toward her, CNN/Gallup/USA and Fox News/Opinion dynamics both polled the American people about whether they believed her. The CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll found that 34% believed and 54% did not believe Broaddrick. The Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll found that 54% believed her and 23% didn't believe her. An editorial in the Wall Street Journal explained the difference as due to the fact that the CNN poll used the word ‘rape’ in its question, while Fox used ‘sexual assault.’ The WSJ's assessment is plausible, but some of the difference might have been due to the fact that the polls were done at different times and Broaddrick had not used the word 'rape' until after the CNN poll but before the Fox poll. She used the word 'rape' in a widely-viewed television program and this probably had some impact on the Fox poll.

Bargh, Chen, and Burrows published one of the classic studies on the priming effect in 1996 with the imposing title "Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action." They found that "participants for whom an elderly stereotype was primed walked more slowly down the hallway when leaving the experiment than did control participants, consistent with the content of that stereotype." On January 18, 2012, Stéphane Doyen et al. published a study on PLoS ONE that attempted, in part, to replicate the Bargh study. The Doyen group concluded that while priming motivates behavior, some of the priming comes from suggestions by the experimenter:
Here, we present two experiments aimed at replicating the original study. Despite the use of automated timing methods and a larger sample, our first experiment failed to show priming. Our second experiment was aimed at manipulating the beliefs of the experimenters: Half were led to think that participants would walk slower when primed congruently, and the other half was led to expect the opposite. Strikingly, we obtained a walking speed effect, but only when experimenters believed participants would indeed walk slower. This suggests that both priming and experimenters' expectations are instrumental in explaining the walking speed effect.
Daniel Kahneman describes the Bargh study as follows. They asked students at New York University to put together four-word sentences from sets of five words. One group was given words like Florida, forgetful, bald, gray, and wrinkle--words associated with aging and the elderly. The other group was given age-neutral words. After constructing their sentences the students were told to go to another room for another experiment, but the real experiment was to see how long it took the students to walk from one room to the other. Bargh et al. predicted that the words with an aura of elderliness about them would prime the subjects to walk slower than those who weren't so primed. The researchers found what they were looking for.

Doyen et al. give a different description of the students' task:
Bargh et al.'s demonstration involved asking participants to indicate which word was the odd one out amongst an ensemble of scrambled words a number of which, when rearranged, form a sentence. Unbeknownst to participants, the word left out of the sentence was systematically related to the concept of “being old”.
I've looked at the Bargh study and it isn't clear to me what procedure they used. They describe their procedure thus:
The task consisted of 30 sets of five word combinations. The participant was instructed to write down a grammatically correct sentence using only four of the five words given. Participants were also informed that the task was self-paced. After giving the instructions, the experimenter left the room so that the participant could complete the task in privacy.
The Bargh report also lists the elderly nuanced words and explains how they were selected.
For the elderly prime version, the critical stimuli were worried, Florida, old, lonely, grey, selfishly, careful, sentimental, wise, stubborn, courteous, bingo, withdraw, forgetful retired, wrinkle, rigid, traditional bitter, obedient, conservative, knits, dependent, ancient, helpless, gullible, cautious, and alone. These prime words were obtained from previous research that examined the components of the elderly stereotype (Brewer, Dull, & Lui, 1981; Harris & Associates, 1975; McTavish, 1971; Perdue & Gurtman, 1990). In the neutral version, the elderly prime words were replaced with the words unrelated to the elderly stereotype (e.g., thirsty, clean, private).
In any case, the real issue at this point in the research is not whether there is a priming effect but what kinds of things induce it, how powerful are the various influences, and is there any way to know when we're being motivated to act by priming factors.

The idea of the priming effect--of the very idea that our conscious choices, decisions, judgments, and behaviors are being biased by unconscious factors--is unsettling to many people. Daniel Kahneman writes:
The main moral of priming research is that our thoughts and our behavior are influenced, much more than we know or want, by the environment of the moment. Many people find the priming results unbelievable, because they do not correspond to subjective experience. Many others find the results upsetting, because they threaten the subjective sense of agency and autonomy. If the content of a screen saver on an irrelevant computer can affect your willingness to help strangers without your being aware of it, how free are you? Anchoring effects are threatening in a similar way. You are always aware of the anchor and even pay attention to it, but you do not know how it guides and constrains your thinking, because you cannot imagine how you would have thought if the anchor had been different (or absent).
What is unsettling is not so much the possibility that all our thoughts and actions might be determined by factors we have no control over, but that they might be determined by factors we are unaware of and are inherently unknowable. It may well be true, as Freud allegedly said, that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But sometimes a cigar may be a symbol or stand-in for something else, and the fondling, licking, and sucking actions of the smoker may represent unconscious desires or portend future actions. I hesitate to guess what might be represented by crushing a cigar butt on the pavement with the sole of one's shoe or the snipping action taken with a cigar cutter while admiring a stick of tobacco before torching it.

I am sorry to report, however, that priming your youngster's brain with the music of Mozart won't make your child more intelligent. The so-called Mozart effect is a hoax.

I'll conclude by referring the reader to an interesting study on priming by Kathleen D. Vohs, Nicole L. Mead, and Miranda R. Goode entitled "The Psychological Consequences of Money" published in Science (17 November 2006: Vol. 314 no. 5802 pp. 1154-115). The researchers did several experiments on the priming effects of money. Here's their abstract:
Money has been said to change people's motivation (mainly for the better) and their behavior toward others (mainly for the worse). The results of nine experiments suggest that money brings about a self-sufficient orientation in which people prefer to be free of dependency and dependents. Reminders of money, relative to nonmoney reminders, led to reduced requests for help and reduced helpfulness toward others. Relative to participants primed with neutral concepts, participants primed with money preferred to play alone, work alone, and put more physical distance between themselves and a new acquaintance.
Now, what do you make of that?


  1. Hey. I think the results of the 'money' experiment are great! Just what society needs these days more self-reliance.

    One of the things I have repeatedly noticed and sometimes results in me being a bad party guest is the whole wine-tasting, wine-glasses phenomenon. I know the science behind wine-glasses and affecting how wine hits your tongue is mostly bunk, and there are /some/ differences between wines, obviously. But you read the descriptions on the back, and they talk about hints of this, this and that. And its obvious there is no way anyone is going to drink the wine and be able to make a list like that (despite what wine connoisseurs will tell you). Instead it is almost invariably priming affect. You read about cinnamon hints and then you taste them, or licorice hints. I once tricked my dad into trying a new bottle of wine (he considers himself a wine connoisseur) and asked him if the label was accurate on the back. Both wines listed completely different 'hints' and 'flavours' in their bottles. And he did not notice at all. Not an iron-clad test, obviously, but papers have demonstrate again and again how subjective our senses are, especially taste.

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