The Hot and Cold of Priming

Psychologists are divided on whether unnoticed cues can influence behavior.

Cognitive psychologist David Shanks of University College London says, “the big idea in social psychology is that social behavior is unconsciously influenced by cues in the environment, but the evidence for that idea needs to be much better.”


Major journals make no secret of preferring papers that describe novel advances and attract media attention, says psychologist Hal Pashler of the University of California, San Diego. Not surprisingly, failed replications often get filed and forgotten, meaning studies that support priming have gotten more attention than those that don’t. Pashler has conducted five unpublished do-overs of priming studies. None have yielded previously reported effects.

What about all that data?

At the San Diego meeting, psychologist Joseph Simmons of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia argued that researchers often arbitrarily exclude data considered unreliable, alter experimental conditions that don’t work as planned and otherwise fiddle with what goes into a final report. Cherry-picking data in this way masks the statistical weakness of published studies and raises doubts about many reports of statistical significance, he said.

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Still curious? Check this thoughtful response and Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior.