Do our expectations of a particular result impact the results we see? That is the questions asked by Stéphane Doyen of the University of Université libre de Bruxelles in Belgium. Doyen and a team of researchers attempted to duplicate a famous experiment from 1996 by researchers Bargh, Chen, and Burrows’ regarding behavioral priming. In recreating the original study using a larger group, the team noticed that the results were not in line with the original study.
Behavioral Priming: Original 1996 Study
In the original study, subjects were tested using behavioral priming. The researchers asked subjects, who thought they were signing up to play word games, to determine which words did not fit a pattern or sentence. The study was attempting to determine whether words related to age would change the behaviors of the subjects, and found that age-related words included in the word games made the subjects walk more slowly when leaving the room.
The 1996 study concluded that behavior priming took place in the participants following the experiment. From a behavioral science standpoint, this type of understanding could be helpful for eliciting desired behaviors from children and in workers. The results would be limited only to the immediate period following the priming response, but could improve behavior in students in school and coworkers who violate company policies regularly.
Doyen’s Study: Retesting Behavioral Priming
Decoded Science asked Doyen about the motivation behind retesting the 1996 study, and he replied,
The impulse came from Axel Cleeremans (a cognitive psychologist) and Olivier Klein (a social psychologist), both co-authors of the study and my supervisors, who, after discussion, realized that while both fields use similar (subliminal) priming methods, they express very different conclusions about the effects of such priming. Specifically, cognitive psychologists remain largely skeptical about the possibility of complex unconscious priming, while the social psychology literature is replete with claims that unconscious cognition and ubiquitous, while stating consciousness serves almost no purpose. In this light, Bargh et al.’s study seemed like the perfect testbed to apply the rigorous methods characteristic of cognitive psychology to an iconic social psychology study (Bargh’s 1996 study is one of the most widely cited study in the field, despite having only only been replicated once or twice). Our initial motivation was thus to construct an exact replication of the study, but using objective rather than subjective timing methods.
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