Why Some Social Science Studies Fail

Reports have recently documented that some of the original studies demonstrating unconscious effects on social behavior—research, for instance, that showed that people walk more slowly after hearing words associated with the elderly (“Florida” and “bingo”)—could not be replicated when the procedures were repeated in new studies. The accounts, however, have generally neglected to mention that many other studies published over the past decade or so have successfully reproduced original findings on unconscious thought and behavior and have also extended this line of investigation in new directions.

These studies have confirmed that an unconscious gesture or a casual word for which a strong association has previously been formed—“priming” to a social psychologist—can change a person's behavior. They provide evidence that subliminal motivations make use of the same mental processes—working memory and executive function—as used in conscious acts of self-control and that people often misunderstand the actual underlying reasons for their behavior when influenced by unconscious impulses.

Studies with replication failures have generally neglected to incorporate procedures, learned through earlier trials, that increase the likelihood of pinpointing an unconscious influence on a person's behavior. In many of the original studies, words and verbal material were used to prime a behavior. Studies that have avoided the use of verbal cues and have instead brought to bear more natural and realistic stimuli that trigger a behavior, such as photographs of victorious athletes, have met with more success. These stimuli are the kinds that matter most for unconscious priming effects in our daily lives.

Further support for this area of social psychology has come from imaging studies examining the workings of brain regions activated by the unconscious cues that affect our behaviors and judgments. This work provides some understanding of the physiological basis for priming effects. Brain scans show that areas typically activated by the perception of whether a surface is “rough” or “smooth” also light up when a person does or does not have difficulty—in essence, has a rough or smooth time—interacting with someone else, and the same midbrain regions that respond to physical warmth have been shown to respond to the friendliness and generosity that characterize social warmth.

The question is not whether various unconscious effects on judgments and behaviors are real and can be replicated—because they are and often have been—but rather why some researchers reproduce these effects and others do not. This question is important to advancing our knowledge of how unconscious social influences operate, and it draws needed attention to the precise contexts and conditions required to produce thoughts and behaviors from unconscious priming cues. More work remains. Still, the overall body of evidence collected so far clearly shows that unconscious influences on judgment, emotion, behavior and motivation are of practical importance both to society as a whole and to the everyday lives of its members. —J.A.B.

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Why Some Social Science Studies Fail

John A. Bargh


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