Unconscious Emotions: Mindless Citations of Questionable Evidence

The past decade has seen major replication failures in social psychology. This has led to a method revolution in social psychology. Thanks to technological advances, many social psychologists moved from studies with smallish undergraduate samples to online studies with hundreds of participants. Thus, findings published after 2016 are more credible than those published before 2016.

However, social psychologists have avoided to take a closer look at theories that were built on the basis of questionable results. Review articles continue to present these theories and cite old studies as if they provided credible evidence for them as if the replication crisis never happened.

One influential theory in social psychology is that stimuli can bypass conscious awareness and still influence behavior. This assumption is based on theories of emotions that emerged in the 1980s. In the famous Lazarus-Zajonc debate most social psychologists sided with Zajonc who quipped that “Preferences need no inferences.”

The influence of Zajonc can be seen in hundreds of studies with implicit primes (Bargh et al., 1996; Devine, 1989) and in modern measures of implicit cognition such as the evaluative priming task and the affect misattribution paradigm (AMP, Payne et al., . 2005).

Payne and Lundberg (2014) credit a study by Murphy and Zajonc (1993) for the development of the AMP. Interestingly, the AMP was developed because Payne was unable to replicate a key finding from Murphy and Zajonc’ studies.

In these studies, a smiling or frowning face was presented immediately before a target stimulus (e.g., a Chinese character). Participants had to evaluate the target. The key finding was that the faces influenced evaluations of the targets only when the faces were processed without awareness. When participants were aware of the faces, they had no effect. When Payne developed the AMP, he found that preceding stimuli (e.g., faces of African Americans) still influenced evaluations of Chinese characters, even though the faces were presented long enough (75ms) to be clearly visible.

Although research with the AMP has blossomed, there has been little interest in exploring the discrepancy between Murphy and Zajonc’s (1993) findings and Payne’s findings.

Payne and Lundbert (2014)

One possible explanation for the discrepancy is that the Murphy and Zajonc’s (1993) results were obtained with questionable research practices (QRPs, John et al., 2012). Fortunately, it is possible to detect the use of QRPs using forensic statistical tools. Here I use these tools to examine the credibility of Murphy and Zajonc’s claims that subliminal presentations of emotional faces produce implicit priming effects.

Before I examine the small set of studies from this article, it is important to point out that the use of QRPs in this literature is highly probable. This is revealed by examining the broader literature of implicit priming, especially with subliminal stimuli (Schimmack, 2020).

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Figure 1 shows that published studies rarely report non-significant results, although the distribution of significant results shows low power and a high probability of non-significant results. While the observed discovery rate is 90%, the expected discovery rate is only 13%. This shows that QRPs were used to supress results that did not show the expected implicit priming effects.

Study 1

Study 1 in Murphy and Zajonc (1993) had 32 participants; 16 with subliminal presentations and 16 with supraliminal presentations. There were 4 within-subject conditions (smiling, frowning & two control conditions). The means of the affect ratings were 3.46 for smiling, 3.06 for both control conditions and 2.70 for the frowning faces. The perfect ordering of means is a bit suspicious, but even more problematic is that the mean differences of experimental conditions and control conditions were all statistically significant. The t-values, df = 15, are 2.23, 2.31, 2.31, and 2.59. Too many significant contrasts have been the downfall for a German social psychologist. Here we can only say that Murphy and Zajonc were very lucky that the two control conditions fell smack in the middle of the two experimental conditions. Any deviation in one direction would have increased one comparison, but decreased the other comparison and increased the risk of a non-significant result.

Study 2

Study 2 was similar, except that the judgments was changed from subjective liking to objective goodness vs. badness judgments.

The means for the two control conditions were again right in the middle, nearly identical to each other, and nearly identical to the means in Study 1 (M = 3.05, 3.06). Given sampling error, it is extremely unlikely that even the same condition produces the same means. Without reporting actual t-values, the authors further claim that all four comparisons of experimental and control conditions are significant.

Taken together, these two studies with surprisingly simiar t-values and 32 participants provide the only evidence for the claim that stimuli outside of awareness can elicit affective reactions. This weak evidence has garnered nearly 1,000 citations without ever being questioned or published replication attempts.

Studies 3-5 did not examine affective priming, but Study 6 did. The paradigm here was different. Participants were subliminally presented with a smiling or a frowning face. Then they had to choose between two pictures, the prime and a foil. The foil either had the same facial expression or a different facial expression. Another manipulation was to have the same or a different gender. This study showed a strong effect of facial expression, t(62) = 6.26, but not of gender.

I liked this design and conducted several conceptual replication studies with emotional pictures (beautiful beaches, dirty toilets). It did not work. Participants were not able to use their affect to pick the right picture from a prime-foil pair. I also manipulated presentation times and with increasing presentation times, participants could pick out the picture, even if the affect was the same (e.g., prime and foil were both pleasant).

Study 6 also explains why Payne was unable to get priming effects for subliminal stimuli that varied race or other features.

One possible explanation for the results in Study 6 is that it is extremely difficult to mask facial expressions, especially smiles. I also did some studies that tried that and at least with computers it was impossible to prevent detection of smiling faces.

Thus, we are left with some questionable results in Studies 1 and 2 as the sole evidence that subliminal stimuli can elicit affective reactions that are transferred to other stimuli.

Conclusion

I have tried to get implicit priming effects on affect measures and failed. It was difficult to publish these failures in the early 2000s. I am sure there are many other replication failures (see Figure 1) and Payne et al.’s (2014) account of the developed the AMP implies as much. Social psychology is still in the process of cleaning up the mess that the use of QRPs created. Implicit priming research is a posterchild of the replication crisis and researchers should stop citing these old articles as if they produced credible evidence.

Emotion researchers may also benefit from revisiting the Lazarus-Zajonc debate. Appraisal theory may not have the sex appeal of unconscious emotions, but it may be a more robust and accurate theory of emotions. Preference may not always require inferences, but preferences that are based on solid inferences are likely to be a better guide of behavior. Therefore I prefer Lazarus over Zajonc.

3 thoughts on “Unconscious Emotions: Mindless Citations of Questionable Evidence

  1. totally agree, these analyses are important!
    had similar experiences beeing not able to replicate the M&Z93 results in at least 5 replication attempts with as close as possible replications of the methods (though, read the original paper, some aspects of the methods simply remain unclear), the only negative replication that I know of was published in a tiny Belgian journal (http://doi.org/10.5334/pb.901) I have in mind the authors told me how difficult it was to get it published at all, positive replications from outside the Zajonc lab are also lacking as far as I am aware of..

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