RUMBLE OVER PRIMING

THE SOURCE: “Power of Suggestion” by Tom Bartlett, in The Chronicle Review, Jan. 30, 2013.

IMAGINE THE LIFE OF A COLLEGE PROFESSOR — a home filled with books, days filled with erudite conversation. Now answer this: “What is the capital of Bangladesh?”

You’ve just experienced the “professor prime.” It’s an example of a phenomenon that social psychologists call behavioral priming, in which subtle cues — pictures, ideas, words — subconsciously affect behavior. If you’re “primed” to think about a professor, then you become smarter — and more likely to dredge up the fact that Dhaka is the capital of Bangladesh. Contemplating the life of a soccer hooligan, on the other hand, makes you denser.

In the 1990s and 2000s, priming was all the rage, explains Tom Bartlett, a senior writer at The Chronicle. It captured headlines, as well as the imaginations of superstar science writers such as Malcolm Gladwell.

But there’s a problem. Skeptics have been trying to reproduce the priming findings. The “replicators,” as Bartlett calls them, haven’t had any luck. Are the findings bogus?

The granddaddy of priming research was the famed “slow walker” study, published in 1996 by John Bargh, a psychologist at Yale. Bargh asked undergraduates at New York University to form sentences out of a group of words. It appeared that the words were random. In reality, one group of subjects considered words evoking lonely old age, such as “bitter,” “wrinkles,” “Florida,” “alone,” and “bingo.” Another group rearranged words that had no theme. When the experiment seemed to end, the subjects were directed to leave down a hallway. Researchers with hidden stopwatches timed how long it took them to walk the distance. The result: The geriatric words rubbed off. On average, the group that had rearranged those words walked more slowly than the other group. “Words on a page made them act old,” Bartlett explains.

It was smashing stuff. Bargh became a rock star in social psychology. Sensational priming studies by other psychologists followed. “The American flag makes you vote Republican,” Bartlett recounts. “Fast-food logos make you impatient.”

But now Bargh is a pariah. His reputation took a huge hit last year when scientists replaced stopwatches with infrared sensors and redid his experiment. The researchers found that subjects who rearranged the words associated with old age didn’t walk any more slowly than the control group. (Previous attempts by other researchers also failed to replicate Bargh’s results.) But then the scientists reverted to Bargh’s method, using stopwatches operated by researchers — and thus opening the door to potential bias. This time the slow walker phenomenon returned.

The “professor prime” hasn’t fared well, either. David Shanks, a psychology professor at University College London, attempted to reproduce the original experiment, whose results were published in 1998 by Dutch professor Ap Dijksterhuis. Shanks tried the experiment nine times and found no correlation between thinking about professors and subjects’ performance on trivia tests. So much for knowing the capital of Bangladesh.

Bargh fired back at the naysayers. In blog posts, which he later removed, he blasted the “incompetent or ill-informed researchers” behind the infrared sensor study. They conducted the experiment a second time. “It still didn’t work,” Bartlett reports.

Princeton’s Daniel Kahneman, a winner of the Nobel Prize and an éminence grise of academic psychology, watched all this unfold and decided to intervene. In a stern e-mail to the priming big shots, including Bargh, he wrote of a “train wreck looming” in social psychology. “I believe that you should collectively do something about this mess,” he warned, beseeching the advocates of priming to engage with the replicators. (In his best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman writes flatteringly of Bargh’s research.)

The e-mail didn’t accomplish much. Bargh and his allies, a minority camp, insist that the replicators are either conducting their experiments with insufficient care or don’t know the priming literature. The replicators throw up their hands and ask, What more can we do?

Gary Latham, a University of Toronto organizational psychologist, fully expected to join the doubter camp. He and a research assistant performed a series of experiments testing people’s subconscious reactions to pictures. Lo and behold, he found strong evidence of priming. “I’ve got two more [sets of experiments] that are just mind-blowing,” Latham gushed to Bartlett.

Latham’s research may be arriving too late to resurrect priming — or Bargh. Shanks, the London professor, says an “avalanche of failed replications” is on the way. But Bargh remains defiant, and Latham now understands why. “I’m like a converted Christian,” he told Bartlett. “I started out as a devout atheist, and now I’m a believer.”

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