This blog post focusses on Chapter 4 about Implicit Priming in Kahneman’s book “Thinking” Fast and Slow.” A review of the book and other chapters can be found here: https://replicationindex.com/2020/12/30/a-meta-scientific-perspective-on-thinking-fast-and-slow/
Daniel Kahneman’s response to this blog post:
Authors: Ulrich Schimmack, Moritz Heene, and Kamini Kesavan
We computed the R-Index for studies cited in Chapter 4 of Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow.” This chapter focuses on priming studies, starting with John Bargh’s study that led to Kahneman’s open email. The results are eye-opening and jaw-dropping. The chapter cites 12 articles and 11 of the 12 articles have an R-Index below 50. The combined analysis of 31 studies reported in the 12 articles shows 100% significant results with average (median) observed power of 57% and an inflation rate of 43%. The R-Index is 14. This result confirms Kahneman’s prediction that priming research is a train wreck and readers of his book “Thinking Fast and Slow” should not consider the presented studies as scientific evidence that subtle cues in their environment can have strong effects on their behavior outside their awareness.
In 2011, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman published a popular book, “Thinking Fast and Slow”, about important finding in social psychology.
In the same year, questions about the trustworthiness of social psychology were raised. A Dutch social psychologist had fabricated data. Eventually over 50 of his articles would be retracted. Another social psychologist published results that appeared to demonstrate the ability to foresee random future events (Bem, 2011). Few researchers believed these results and statistical analysis suggested that the results were not trustworthy (Francis, 2012; Schimmack, 2012). Psychologists started to openly question the credibility of published results.
In the beginning of 2012, Doyen and colleagues published a failure to replicate a prominent study by John Bargh that was featured in Daniel Kahneman’s book. A few month later, Daniel Kahneman distanced himself from Bargh’s research in an open email addressed to John Bargh (Young, 2012):
“As all of you know, of course, questions have been raised about the robustness of priming results…. your field is now the poster child for doubts about the integrity of psychological research… people have now attached a question mark to the field, and it is your responsibility to remove it… all I have personally at stake is that I recently wrote a book that emphasizes priming research as a new approach to the study of associative memory…Count me as a general believer… My reason for writing this letter is that I see a train wreck looming.”
Five years later, Kahneman’s concerns have been largely confirmed. Major studies in social priming research have failed to replicate and the replicability of results in social psychology is estimated to be only 25% (OSC, 2015).
Looking back, it is difficult to understand the uncritical acceptance of social priming as a fact. In “Thinking Fast and Slow” Kahneman wrote “disbelief is not an option. The results are not made up, nor are they statistical flukes. You have no choice but to accept that the major conclusions of these studies are true.”
Yet, Kahneman could have seen the train wreck coming. In 1971, he co-authored an article about scientists’ “exaggerated confidence in the validity of conclusions based on small samples” (Tversky & Kahneman, 1971, p. 105). Yet, many of the studies described in Kahneman’s book had small samples. For example, Bargh’s priming study used only 30 undergraduate students to demonstrate the effect.
Small samples can be sufficient to detect large effects. However, small effects require large samples. The probability of replicating a published finding is a function of sample size and effect size. The Replicability Index (R-Index) makes it possible to use information from published results to predict how replicable published results are.
Every reported test-statistic can be converted into an estimate of power, called observed power. For a single study, this estimate is useless because it is not very precise. However, for sets of studies, the estimate becomes more precise. If we have 10 studies and the average power is 55%, we would expect approximately 5 to 6 studies with significant results and 4 to 5 studies with non-significant results.
If we observe 100% significant results with an average power of 55%, it is likely that studies with non-significant results are missing (Schimmack, 2012). There are too many significant results. This is especially true because average power is also inflated when researchers report only significant results. Consequently, the true power is even lower than average observed power. If we observe 100% significant results with 55% average powered power, power is likely to be less than 50%.
This is unacceptable. Tversky and Kahneman (1971) wrote “we refuse to believe that a serious investigator will knowingly accept a .50 risk of failing to confirm a valid research hypothesis.”
To correct for the inflation in power, the R-Index uses the inflation rate. For example, if all studies are significant and average power is 75%, the inflation rate is 25% points. The R-Index subtracts the inflation rate from average power. So, with 100% significant results and average observed power of 75%, the R-Index is 50% (75% – 25% = 50%). The R-Index is not a direct estimate of true power. It is actually a conservative estimate of true power if the R-Index is below 50%. Thus, an R-Index below 50% suggests that a significant result was obtained only by capitalizing on chance, although it is difficult to quantify by how much.
How Replicable are the Social Priming Studies in “Thinking Fast and Slow”?
Chapter 4: The Associative Machine
4.1. Cognitive priming effect
In the 1980s, psychologists discovered that exposure to a word causes immediate and measurable changes in the ease with which many related words can be evoked.
[no reference provided]
4.2. Priming of behavior without awareness
Another major advance in our understanding of memory was the discovery that priming is not restricted to concepts and words. You cannot know this from conscious experience, of course, but you must accept the alien idea that your actions and your emotions can be primed by events of which you are not even aware.
“In an experiment that became an instant classic, the psychologist John Bargh and his collaborators asked students at New York University—most aged eighteen to twenty-two—to assemble four-word sentences from a set of five words (for example, “finds he it yellow instantly”). For one group of students, half the scrambled sentences contained words associated with the elderly, such as Florida, forgetful, bald, gray, or wrinkle. When they had completed that task, the young participants were sent out to do another experiment in an office down the hall. That short walk was what the experiment was about. The researchers unobtrusively measured the time it took people to get from one end of the corridor to the other.”
“As Bargh had predicted, the young people who had fashioned a sentence from words with an elderly theme walked down the hallway significantly more slowly than the others. walking slowly, which is associated with old age.”
“All this happens without any awareness. When they were questioned afterward, none of the students reported noticing that the words had had a common theme, and they all insisted that nothing they did after the first experiment could have been influenced by the words they had encountered. The idea of old age had not come to their conscious awareness, but their actions had changed nevertheless.“
[John A. Bargh, Mark Chen, and Lara Burrows, “Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71 (1996): 230–44.]
MOP = .65, Inflation = .35, R-Index = .30
4.3. Reversed priming: Behavior primes cognitions
“The ideomotor link also works in reverse. A study conducted in a German university was the mirror image of the early experiment that Bargh and his colleagues had carried out in New York.”
“Students were asked to walk around a room for 5 minutes at a rate of 30 steps per minute, which was about one-third their normal pace. After this brief experience, the participants were much quicker to recognize words related to old age, such as forgetful, old, and lonely.”
“Reciprocal priming effects tend to produce a coherent reaction: if you were primed to think of old age, you would tend to act old, and acting old would reinforce the thought of old age.”
MOP = .53, Inflation = .47, R-Index = .06
4.4. Facial-feedback hypothesis (smiling makes you happy)
“Reciprocal links are common in the associative network. For example, being amused tends to make you smile, and smiling tends to make you feel amused….”
“College students were asked to rate the humor of cartoons from Gary Larson’s The Far Side while holding a pencil in their mouth. Those who were “smiling” (without any awareness of doing so) found the cartoons funnier than did those who were “frowning.”
[“Inhibiting and Facilitating Conditions of the Human Smile: A Nonobtrusive Test of the Facial Feedback Hypothesis,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 54 (1988): 768–77.]
The authors used the more liberal and unconventional criterion of p < .05 (one-tailed), z = 1.65, as a criterion for significance. Accordingly, we adjusted the R-Index analysis and used 1.65 as the criterion value.
MOP = .57, Inflation = .43, R-Index = .14
These results could not be replicated in a large replication effort with 17 independent labs. Not a single lab produced a significant result and even a combined analysis failed to show any evidence for the effect.
4.5. Automatic Facial Responses
In another experiment, people whose face was shaped into a frown (by squeezing their eyebrows together) reported an enhanced emotional response to upsetting pictures—starving children, people arguing, maimed accident victims.
[Ulf Dimberg, Monika Thunberg, and Sara Grunedal, “Facial Reactions to
Emotional Stimuli: Automatically Controlled Emotional Responses,” Cognition and Emotion, 16 (2002): 449–71.]
The description in the book does not match any of the three studies reported in this article. The first two studies examined facial muscle movements in response to pictures of facial expressions (smiling or frowning faces). The third study used emotional pictures of snakes and flowers. We might consider the snake pictures as being equivalent to pictures of starving children or maimed accident victims. Participants were also asked to frown or to smile while looking at the pictures. However, the dependent variable was not how they felt in response to pictures of snakes, but rather how their facial muscles changed. Aside from a strong effect of instructions, the study also found that the emotional picture had an automatic effect on facial muscles. Participants frowned more when instructed to frown and looking at a snake picture than when instructed to frown and looking at a picture of a flower. “This response, however, was larger to snakes than to flowers as indicated by both the Stimulus factor, F(1, 47) = 6.66, p < .02, and the Stimulus 6 Interval factor, F(1, 47) = 4.30, p < .05.” (p. 463). The evidence for smiling was stronger. “The zygomatic major muscle response was larger to flowers than to snakes, which was indicated by both the Stimulus factor, F(1, 47) = 18.03, p < .001, and the Stimulus 6 Interval factor, F(1, 47) = 16.78, p < .001.” No measures of subjective experiences were included in this study. Therefore, the results of this study provide no evidence for Kahneman’s claim in the book and the results of this study are not included in our analysis.
4.6. Effects of Head-Movements on Persuasion
“Simple, common gestures can also unconsciously influence our thoughts and feelings.”
“In one demonstration, people were asked to listen to messages through new headphones. They were told that the purpose of the experiment was to test the quality of the audio equipment and were instructed to move their heads repeatedly to check for any distortions of sound. Half the participants were told to nod their head up and down while others were told to shake it side to side. The messages they heard were radio editorials.”
“Those who nodded (a yes gesture) tended to accept the message they heard, but those who shook their head tended to reject it. Again, there was no awareness, just a habitual connection between an attitude of rejection or acceptance and its common physical expression.”
MOP = 1.00, Inflation = .00, R-Index = 1.00
[Gary L. Wells and Richard E. Petty, “The Effects of Overt Head Movements on Persuasion: Compatibility and Incompatibility of Responses,” Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 1, (1980): 219–30.]
4.7 Location as Prime
“Our vote should not be affected by the location of the polling station, for example, but it is.”
“A study of voting patterns in precincts of Arizona in 2000 showed that the support for propositions to increase the funding of schools was significantly greater when the polling station was in a school than when it was in a nearby location.”
“A separate experiment showed that exposing people to images of classrooms and school lockers also increased the tendency of participants to support a school initiative. The effect of the images was larger than the difference between parents and other voters!”
[Jonah Berger, Marc Meredith, and S. Christian Wheeler, “Contextual Priming: Where People Vote Affects How They Vote,” PNAS 105 (2008): 8846–49.]
|z = 2.10||0.036||2.10||0.56|
|p = .05||0.050||1.96||0.50|
MOP = .53, Inflation = .47, R-Index = .06
4.8 Money Priming
“Reminders of money produce some troubling effects.”
“Participants in one experiment were shown a list of five words from which they were required to construct a four-word phrase that had a money theme (“high a salary desk paying” became “a high-paying salary”).”
“Other primes were much more subtle, including the presence of an irrelevant money-related object in the background, such as a stack of Monopoly money on a table, or a computer with a screen saver of dollar bills floating in water.”
“Money-primed people become more independent than they would be without the associative trigger. They persevered almost twice as long in trying to solve a very difficult problem before they asked the experimenter for help, a crisp demonstration of increased self-reliance.”
“Money-primed people are also more selfish: they were much less willing to spend time helping another student who pretended to be confused about an experimental task. When an experimenter clumsily dropped a bunch of pencils on the floor, the participants with money (unconsciously) on their mind picked up fewer pencils.”
“In another experiment in the series, participants were told that they would shortly have a get-acquainted conversation with another person and were asked to set up two chairs while the experimenter left to retrieve that person. Participants primed by money chose to stay much farther apart than their nonprimed peers (118 vs. 80 centimeters).”
“Money-primed undergraduates also showed a greater preference for being alone.”
[Kathleen D. Vohs, “The Psychological Consequences of Money,” Science 314 (2006): 1154–56.]
MOP = .58, Inflation = .42, R-Index = .16
4.9 Death Priming
“The evidence of priming studies suggests that reminding people of their mortality increases the appeal of authoritarian ideas, which may become reassuring in the context of the terror of death.”
The cited article does not directly examine this question. The abstract states that “three experiments were conducted to test the hypothesis, derived from terror management theory, that reminding people of their mortality increases attraction to those who consensually validate their beliefs and decreases attraction to those who threaten their beliefs” (p. 308). Study 2 found no general effect of death priming. Rather, the effect was qualified by authoritarianism. Mortality salience enhanced the rejection of dissimilar others in Study 2 only among high authoritarian subjects.” (p. 314), based on a three-way interaction with F(1,145) = 4.08, p = .045. We used the three-way interaction for the computation of the R-Index. Study 1 reported opposite effects for ratings of Christian targets, t(44) = 2.18, p = .034 and Jewish targets, t(44)= 2.08, p = .043. As these tests are dependent, only one test could be used, and we chose the slightly stronger result. Similarly, Study 3 reported significantly more liking of a positive interviewee and less liking of a negative interviewee, t(51) = 2.02, p = .049 and t(49) = 2.42, p = .019, respectively. We chose the stronger effect.
[Jeff Greenberg et al., “Evidence for Terror Management Theory II: The Effect of Mortality Salience on Reactions to Those Who Threaten or Bolster the Cultural Worldview,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology]
MOP = .56, Inflation = .44, R-Index = .12
4.10 The “Lacy Macbeth Effect”
“For example, consider the ambiguous word fragments W_ _ H and S_ _ P. People who were recently asked to think of an action of which they are ashamed are more likely to complete those fragments as WASH and SOAP and less likely to see WISH and SOUP.”
“Furthermore, merely thinking about stabbing a coworker in the back leaves people more inclined to buy soap, disinfectant, or detergent than batteries, juice, or candy bars. Feeling that one’s soul is stained appears to trigger a desire to cleanse one’s body, an impulse that has been dubbed the “Lady Macbeth effect.”
[Lady Macbeth effect”: Chen-Bo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist, “Washing Away Your Sins:
Threatened Morality and Physical Cleansing,” Science 313 (2006): 1451–52.]
MOP = .61, Inflation = .39, R-Index = .22
The article reports two more studies that are not explicitly mentioned, but are used as empirical support for the Lady Macbeth effect. As the results of these studies were similar to those in the mentioned studies, including these tests in our analysis does not alter the conclusions.
MOP = .59, Inflation = .41, R-Index = .18
4.11 Modality Specificity of the “Lacy Macbeth Effect”
“Participants in an experiment were induced to “lie” to an imaginary person, either on the phone or in e-mail. In a subsequent test of the desirability of various products, people who had lied on the phone preferred mouthwash over soap, and those who had lied in e-mail preferred soap to mouthwash.”
[Spike Lee and Norbert Schwarz, “Dirty Hands and Dirty Mouths: Embodiment of the Moral-Purity Metaphor Is Specific to the Motor Modality Involved in Moral Transgression,” Psychological Science 21 (2010): 1423–25.]
The results are presented as significant with a one-sided t-test. “As shown in Figure 1a, participants evaluated mouthwash more positively after lying in a voice mail (M = 0.21, SD = 0.72) than after lying in an e-mail (M = –0.26, SD = 0.94), F(1, 81) = 2.93, p = .03 (one-tailed), d = 0.55 (simple main effect), but evaluated hand sanitizer more positively after lying in an e-mail (M = 0.31, SD = 0.76) than after lying in a voice mail (M = –0.12, SD = 0.86), F(1, 81) = 3.25, p = .04 (one-tailed), d = 0.53 (simple main effect).” We adjusted the significance criterion for the R-Index accordingly.
MOP = .54, Inflation = .46, R-Index = .08
4.12 Eyes on You
“On the first week of the experiment (which you can see at the bottom of the figure), two wide-open eyes stare at the coffee or tea drinkers, whose average contribution was 70 pence per liter of milk. On week 2, the poster shows flowers and average contributions drop to about 15 pence. The trend continues. On average, the users of the kitchen contributed almost three times as much in ’eye weeks’ as they did in ’flower weeks.’ ”
[Melissa Bateson, Daniel Nettle, and Gilbert Roberts, “Cues of Being Watched Enhance Cooperation in a Real-World Setting,” Biology Letters 2 (2006): 412–14.]
MOP = .72, Inflation = .28, R-Index = .44
We then combined the results from the 31 studies mentioned above. While the R-Index for small sets of studies may underestimate replicability, the R-Index for a large set of studies is more accurate. Median Obesrved Power for all 31 studies is only 57%. It is incredible that 31 studies with 57% power could produce 100% significant results (Schimmack, 2012). Thus, there is strong evidence that the studies provide an overly optimistic image of the robustness of social priming effects. Moreover, median observed power overestimates true power if studies were selected to be significant. After correcting for inflation, the R-Index is well below 50%. This suggests that the studies have low replicability. Moreover, it is possible that some of the reported results are actually false positive results. Just like the large-scale replication of the facial feedback studies failed to provide any support for the original findings, other studies may fail to show any effects in large replication projects. As a result, readers of “Thinking Fast and Slow” should be skeptical about the reported results and they should disregard Kahneman’s statement that “you have no choice but to accept that the major conclusions of these studies are true.” Our analysis actually leads to the opposite conclusion. “You should not accept any of the conclusions of these studies as true.”
k = 31, MOP = .57, Inflation = .43, R-Index = .14, Grade: F for Fail
Powergraph of Chapter 4
Schimmack and Brunner (2015) developed an alternative method for the estimation of replicability. This method takes into account that power can vary across studies. It also provides 95% confidence intervals for the replicability estimate. The results of this method are presented in the Figure above. The replicability estimate is similar to the R-Index, with 14% replicability. However, due to the small set of studies, the 95% confidence interval is wide and includes values above 50%. This does not mean that we can trust the published results, but it does suggest that some of the published results might be replicable in larger replication studies with more power to detect small effects. At the same time, the graph shows clear evidence for a selection effect. That is, published studies in these articles do not provide a representative picture of all the studies that were conducted. The powergraph shows that there should have been a lot more non-significant results than were reported in the published articles. The selective reporting of studies that worked is at the core of the replicability crisis in social psychology (Sterling, 1959, Sterling et al., 1995; Schimmack, 2012). To clean up their act and to regain trust in published results, social psychologists have to conduct studies with larger samples that have more than 50% power (Tversky & Kahneman, 1971) and they have to stop reporting only significant results. We can only hope that social psychologists will learn from the train wreck of social priming research and improve their research practices.
148 thoughts on “Reconstruction of a Train Wreck: How Priming Research Went off the Rails”
I think it is a bit disingenuous to say that no one expected a train-wreck of this magnitude. The largest counter examples are those fired for having the wrong opinion or haven spoken out against fraud. There are a long his of “heretics” in most sciences – if you go deep enough into the history of who-said-what-when. The longest list perhaps is in medicine, where researchers who did no go along with pharmaceutical industry’s wishes often times just started new lines of work instead of becoming infamous, as outspoken peers had become. Every major paradigm has opponents – and they are rarely even summarized correctly in mainstream literature. Instead we often paint non-mainstream paradigms as if they’re religious and mainstream paradigms as if they’re “science.” “Science” is more like a set of methods than a system of beliefs, which need to be applied – but it seems obvious this was better known 100 years ago than it is today. Now don’t paint me as someone who doesn’t enjoy and realize the last 100 years of massive progress – but we need to temper this attitude with the phenomena we know that cause the desired effects. Perhaps we would do well to re-summarize a paradigm in every major and minor scientific field – and include opposing views in no less breadth, with attributions to their foundational histories, trends, and authors.
Do you have examples for the mavericks of medicine? I would love to have a read.
Sorry, haven’t worked on medicine yet, but in general medicine is better than psychology (Jager & Leek, 2014).