Friday 20 September 2013

Social priming: Of course it only kind of works

Social priming is the field of research about how thinking about or interacting with something (like warm coffee, or old age) can affect later, vaguely related behaviour. (Rolf Zwaan has a useful summary of the theoretical background here and here, and a recipe for how to whip one of these up for yourself here.) It has been a top target for replication efforts in psychology. Although social priming effects in general have been widely demonstrated, many specific results (e.g. priming people to think about old age makes you walk slower; Bargh, Chen & Burrows, 1996) have failed to reliably replicate (even thought the effect sizes for individual studies are often surprisingly large). Most of the attention has been on the work of John Bargh because he basically invented the field (all discussed in this profile from January 2013).  Last year Bargh exploded all over the internet with a bit of a tantrum about these failures on his Psychology Today blog (now deleted, but archived for posterity here and here and discussed in detail by Ed Yong here). This made him something of a punching bag on Twitter, etc and so people are a bit excited that another Bargh social priming result has failed to replicate (oh and hey, here's another, non-Bargh one). Cue panic, gnashing of teeth and reflexive defensive moves by social psychologists (plus coverage of the topic in the NYT).

I'm a bit bemused by it all, really. I am not at all surprised that while social priming works in general, there is wide variation in how well specific social priming tasks work out. Of course priming works - it couldn't not work. But the lack of control over the information contained in social priming experiments guarantees unreliable outcomes for specific examples. Let me see if I can explain what I mean.

Friday 6 September 2013

Perceiving causes; why knowledge doesn't trump perception

You're an organism, wandering round the world. Some stuff happens; then, other stuff happens. How do we know whether the first stuff caused the second stuff to happen, or whether it's all just one damn thing after another? A new study in Psychological Science (Bechlivanidis & Lagnado, 2013) investigates whether what we know can affect what we perceive, and claims to show that perception can get overridden. This caught my eye because it sounds like the kind of result that will be a problem for our embodied cognition (Wilson & Golonka, 2013), but thinking through the experiment using the tools of dynamics and event perception shows that this result is not going to cause us much concern - it just isn't studying what it says it's studying.