before and after subliminal presentations
of words related to speed or slowness.
During subliminal priming, letter and
number strings flashed on the screen
just long enough to be noticed. Some
volunteers were told that these strings
would distract them from any thoughts
starting to form. Among these individuals, average reading pace quickened in
response to fast primes and decelerated
after slow primes. Loersch suggests that
participants mistook prime-induced
urges to speed up or slow down for their
own ideas, believing their thoughts were
powerful enough to survive experimental distractions. Taking ownership of
primed thoughts prompted behavior
consistent with those thoughts — reading instructions either faster or slower.
Reading rates remained unchanged,
though, when participants were told that
letter and number strings contained powerful, irresistible subliminal messages. In
this case, volunteers may have refused to
heed urges to speed up or slow down, feeling that those urges were alien notions
implanted during the trial. “We may be
priming people to trust or distrust what
they remember,” Loersch says.
Some real-life situations up the
chances of mistaking externally influenced thoughts for self-generated ones,
he adds. Priming may flourish, for example, when people have to make quick
decisions in complex settings.
Doyen takes a dim view of subliminal
research. “It’s already difficult to obtain
priming effects with weakly perceived
cues in scrambled sentences,” he says.
“I doubt subliminal priming effects will
stand up to replication.”
Repeats and defeats
attempts to replicate studies of unconscious influences on mind and behavior
often don’t get published. Some researchers say that publicizing details on
such research repeats (some below) would allow a fuller evaluation of priming.
initially, a report suggested that U.S. volunteers (who are known to talk
about time as if it moves horizontally, as in “moving forward”) make
faster judgments about factual questions after seeing an array of horizontal objects rather than a vertical array. a do-over didn’t find the effect.
a 2008 study found that volunteers scored lower on a general knowledge test if, after being prompted to feel close to others, the volunteers
focused on the hair color of blond beauty queens. a redo got the same
result, suggesting that identifying with “dumb blondes” can undermine
thinking—at least among those who buy into the stereotype.
compared with students who plotted closely situated points on a grid,
students who plotted distant points reported weaker emotional ties
to family members in one study. a replication attempt that minimized
researchers’ contacts with participants found that the distance between
points didn’t drive feelings toward kin.
in an original study, researchers reported that europeans’ scores on
a general knowledge test rose after thinking about college professors
and dropped after thinking about soccer hooligans. in a replication, test
scores remained stable after participants’ contemplated either academics or sports ruffians.
Warm showers for cold hearts
Whether Doyen and others buy into
priming’s effects or not, Bargh is poised
to move the dispute outside the lab.
Bargh suspects that physical warmth
and other health-related cues, delivered
by image or text to smartphones or via
virtual reality headsets, can supplement
treatments for anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addictive behaviors and
Lonely, rejected guys and gals instinc-
tively seek out physical warmth without
realizing what they’re doing, Bargh and
psychologist Idit Shalev of Ben-Gurion
University of the Negev in Beersheba,
Israel, reported in the February Emotion.
s For do-overs of psychology studies,
May 19, 2012 | SCIENCE NEWS | 29