What Is “Social Priming”? – Neuroskeptic


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“Social priming” has not too long ago been one of the controversial matters in psychological science. With failures to duplicate proliferating, the sector has been known as a train-wreck. However what precisely is it?

Right here’s how I outlined social priming in a 2016 submit:

“Social priming” has been the punching-bag of psychology for the previous few years.

The time period “social priming” refers to the concept refined cues can exert giant, unconscious influences on human behaviour. The basic instance of a social priming impact was the “professor priming” research by which volunteers who accomplished a activity by which they needed to describe a typical professor, subsequently carried out higher on a basic information activity. In different phrases, because the authors put it, “priming a stereotype or trait results in complicated overt habits in step with this activated stereotype or trait.”

Though it was a booming analysis space for a few years (that professor priming paper has 756 citations), social priming has currently come underneath heavy criticism. Many researchers have failed to duplicate beforehand claimed results.

Now, in a brand new preprint, Andrew Rivers and Jeff Sherman criticize me, and others, for utilizing the time period ‘social priming’ in order to exclude much less controversial priming results from the definition. Rivers and Sherman make a number of different factors of their piece, however on this submit I’m going to deal with the problem of definition.

Discussing my 2016 submit, by which I argued just-published research by Payne et al. didn’t present proof of social priming, as a result of the strategy was (I assumed) very totally different from a typical social priming experiment, Rivers and Sherman say the next:

Certainly, there are a lot of variations between the playing paradigm developed by Payne and colleagues (2016) and extra regularly mentioned paradigms equivalent to Bargh et al. (1996). Nevertheless we’re unable to find out why the label ‘social priming’ applies to 1 sort or one other… So far, nobody has offered clear steering as to what sorts of results ought to ‘depend’ as ‘social priming’.

So I made a decision to hint the historical past of the time period.


The phrases “Social priming” had been first used collectively in 1970 about mice, however the earliest use in something like the trendy sense got here in 1984 in a paper by Elliot R. Smith. Smith used the phrase to explain this 1981 paper by Wyer and Strull.

Wyer and Strull primed contributors (utilizing a sentence building activity) with ideas equivalent to ‘hostility’ or ‘kindness’ earlier than asking contributors to learn a vignette a couple of man (‘Donald’) after which to explain his actions. ‘Hostility’ primes led individuals to view ‘Donald’ as being extra hostile and usually much less sympathetic, whereas kindness priming had the reverse impact.

Smith known as Wyer and Strull’s paradigm “social priming” as a result of it involved social judgment (or notion) – evaluating one other particular person, ‘Donald’. “Social priming” was an excellent description on this context, however sarcastically, Wyer and Strull (1981) wouldn’t be thought of a paradigmatic instance of “social priming” at this time, as a result of it didn’t present that priming affected the contributors’ personal behaviour.

Following Smith (1984), the primary basic “social priming” research within the trendy sense appeared in 1996: Bargh, Chen and Burrows, the notorious ‘aged priming’ research. Bargh et al. used strategies just like Wyer & Strull’s, however with a key distinction: they reported that priming a social idea induced contributors to enact it, e.g. priming rudeness made individuals act rudely to an experimenter. But Bargh et al. didn’t point out “social priming”, as an alternative referring to its findings as displaying “automated habits priming” or “stereotype assimilation”.

So far as I can see, it was not till 2005 that the time period “social priming” was utilized to the type of research which have currently change into punchbags. John Bargh used “social priming” on this approach in his 2005 e book, and in addition in 2005, different authors used it in the identical approach. By 2012, a overview article on social priming results made no point out of Wyer and Strull in any respect.

The ultimate stage within the improvement of “social priming” was when the time period expanded to incorporate not solely stereotype-based results, equivalent to in Bargh’s work, however to incorporate priming by mere pictures or reminders of ideas equivalent to cash and intercourse/romance. I think this primary occurred outdoors the scholarly literature, but it surely had occurred by 2015 when a Nature information piece outlined “social priming” as the concept “sure behaviours are claimed to be modified unconsciously by earlier publicity to stimuli, equivalent to an American flag, or interested by cash”.


So what can we take from this? I feel it clear that “social priming”, because the time period is at the moment used, is a misnomer. There’s nothing particularly social about priming with cash and changing into grasping, and little or no that’s social about priming with an aged stereotype after which strolling slower.

However what different time period can we use? Bargh et al.’s “automated habits priming” is kind of good, however taken actually, it may apply to all types of priming, even classical semantic priming results (pushing a button is a behaviour, and the prime is automated).

In my opinion, the essence of what we name “social priming” is that the prime doesn’t prime individuals to present a specific response (as in semantic priming) however slightly, the prime is claimed to alter the contributors’ behaviour in a extra world sense. Cash priming, as an example, is claimed not simply to make individuals need cash, however (amongst different issues) to make them “assert extra strongly that victims deserve their destiny”. It’s an summary, world change in psychological or behavioural state which may manifest in some ways.

Due to this fact, maybe essentially the most acceptable time period for this type of work could be world state priming?

See additionally: Understanding priming results in social psychology: What’s “social priming” and the way does it happen? (2014) Daniel Molden

h/t Rolf Degen for declaring the Rivers and Sherman preprint.

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