Debate over priming effect illustrates need for replication

A review of the literature regarding the priming effect highlights the need in science for replication:

At the same time, psychology has been beset with scandal and doubt. Formerly high-flying researchers like Diederik Stapel, Marc Hauser, and Dirk Smeesters saw their careers implode after allegations that they had cooked their results and managed to slip them past the supposedly watchful eyes of peer reviewers. Psychology isn’t the only field with fakers, but it has its share. Plus there’s the so-called file-drawer problem, that is, the tendency for researchers to publish their singular successes and ignore their multiple failures, making a fluke look like a breakthrough. Fairly or not, social psychologists are perceived to be less rigorous in their methods, generally not replicating their own or one another’s work, instead pressing on toward the next headline-making outcome.

Much of the criticism has been directed at priming. The definitions get dicey here because the term can refer to a range of phenomena, some of which are grounded in decades of solid evidence—like the “anchoring effect,” which happens, for instance, when a store lists a competitor’s inflated price next to its own to make you think you’re getting a bargain. That works. The studies that raise eyebrows are mostly in an area known as behavioral or goal priming, research that demonstrates how subliminal prompts can make you do all manner of crazy things. A warm mug makes you friendlier. The American flag makes you vote Republican. Fast-food logos make you impatient. A small group of skeptical psychologists—let’s call them the Replicators—have been trying to reproduce some of the most popular priming effects in their own labs.

What have they found? Mostly that they can’t get those results. The studies don’t check out. Something is wrong. And because he is undoubtedly the biggest name in the field, the Replicators have paid special attention to John Bargh and the study that started it all.

While some may find this discouraging, it sounds like the scientific process is being followed. A researcher, Bargh, finds something interesting. Others follow up to see if Bargh was right and to try to extend the idea. Debate ensues once a number of studies have been done. Perhaps there is one stage left to finish off in this process: the research community has to look at the accumulated evidence at some point and decide whether the priming effect exists or not. What does the overall weight of the evidence suggest?

For the replication process to work well, a few things need to happen. Researchers need to be willing to repeat the studies of others as well as their own studies. They need to be willing to report both positive and negative findings, regardless of which side of the debate they are on. Journals need to provide space for positive and negative findings. This incremental process will take time and may not lead to big headlines but its steady approach should pay off in the end.

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