The Huffington Post:
What do those words evoke for you? For me, because I still have fragments of T.S. Eliot’s poetry bouncing around my neurons, those lyrical words trigger the idea of growing old, with all its associated aches and pains and slowing down. Other words might do the same for you — Florida, lonely, RV, Social Security — depending on your experiences. Mere words have the power to shape our thinking and our judgments in hidden ways every day.
And not just our thinking — our actions as well. In a classic 1996 study, psychological scientists demonstrated that “priming” people with aging-related words actually led them to walk more slowly afterward — as if they were unconsciously taking the part of the elderly. The effect was subtle, but the concept was arresting. If words could prime such stereotypical thinking and behavior, what else might be primed without our awareness? Environmental cues are ubiquitous — both deliberate and random — shaping our views and actions as consumers, parents, professionals, and more.
Today the idea of unconscious priming is under intense scrutiny. It’s not that the notion is entirely implausible, critics say, but the scientific evidence is inconsistent and unreliable. Scientists have reported failed attempts to replicate studies supporting the idea, including a failed replication of Yale University scientist John Bargh’s original elderly priming study. Bargh himself has publicly defended the concept and his methods, pointing to successful if qualified replications. Most notably, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, in an open letter to the field, singled out priming research as “the poster child for doubts about the integrity of psychological research.” He urged his colleagues to “do something about this mess.”
Enter Carnegie Mellon psychological scientists Roberta Klatzky and David Creswell to do just that — or at least to offer some insight into the mess. To understand priming, they reasoned, it would help to know precisely how — through which of the mind’s pathways — the effects are supposed to be mediated.
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