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Social Priming in Theory Part 2

The discussion on social priming is still raging, with researchers being unable to replicate key original findings, replication efforts being criticized by the original researchers, replication researchers replying to the criticism, other researchers weighing in, journalists sensationalizing the controversy, and wiser heads trying to put things in perspective and calm the waters.

As in my previous post, I’m going to ignore the empirical debate and look at social priming from a more theoretical perspective. Some people (on Twitter) wondered what the point of this was. After all, if some of the key findings cannot be replicated, does it make sense to build a theory on this? My response to this criticism is that just because there might be problems with some of the experiments in this area, it doesn’t mean that the phenomenon itself does not exist. Perhaps it has not been investigated properly.

So let’s look at the essence of social priming. The basic idea—as I understand it—is that there are man-made cues in our environment that impact our thoughts and actions in non-arbitrary ways. It is easy to think of examples here. Maybe the most extreme one would be a dictatorial regime, where people are bombarded on a daily basis with a barrage of images, sounds, and words promoting the leader, the regime, national pride, and a certain ethos. Other examples in this vein are armies and religious groups, where uniformity in dress (uniforms, habits) and behavior (e.g., marching, mass prayer) serve to suppress individuality in thought and action. Of course, the Milgram and Stanford prison experiments are classic examples of this in the social psychological literature.

More general forms of social priming may have their origin in constraints imposed by geography or biology. For example, being on higher ground provides an advantage in battle. This is where the commanders are usually situated, overlooking the battlefield. Commanders, such as knights, used to be on horseback whereas foot soldiers were (you guessed it) on foot. So it is only natural perhaps that our culture has come to associate power with being “up.” Take a look at the organogram of the university or company you work at. There is a good chance that the levels that have the most power are located at the top and the ones with the least power near the bottom.

The signature examples of social priming are nothing like this, however. For example, the word bingo is not designed to make people walk slowly. Rather, it is used to refer to a boring game that happens to be played mostly by old people. Likewise, the word professor refers to an academic rank and is not designed to make people perform better on a general knowledge test.

There are several attempts to make sense of the social priming literature. I discussed two of them in my previous post. I will focus on a third one here, an article by David Loersch and Keith Payne. Right off the bat, we are confronted with an unfortunate detail. They build their theory on the works of Stapel and Smeesters, who have had their articles retracted, and Dijksterhuis and Bargh, whose main findings have not been replicated in recent studies. Clearly, these studies do not make for the strongest of empirical foundations.

Still, I think it is possible to separate the theory from its shaky foundation. In fact, let’s just assume that there is no empirical foundation at all and that the theory is based on casual observations and armchair philosophizing of how social priming might work in principle.

Loersch & Payne, like other theoreticians of social priming whose work I discussed in my previous post, argue that there are different ways of priming. They provide a nice example. Suppose you are primed with words related to hostility, like anger and punch. You might exhibit the following types of priming.

(1) Semantic priming. You would more quickly recognize words like enemy and violence.
(2) Construal Priming. You would perceive another person as more hostile.
(3) Behavior Priming. You would become more hostile yourself.
(4) Goal Priming. You would become more motivated to seek out opportunities to be aggressive yourself.

There clearly is the most evidence for semantic priming. I would even go so far as to say that semantic priming is uncontroversial in both cognitive and social psychology. The notion underlying semantic priming is that of a semantic network where nodes are words or concepts and the links associations between them. If two words are closely associated, for example apple and pear, there is more priming between them than if they are less closely associated, for example apple and bread.

It is logical to think that semantic priming is more direct than the other three types of priming, which require activation to spread among many more nodes in a network. Dan Simons makes the same argument in a recent blog post. The amount of spreading activation is necessarily smaller at each cycle (each new set of nodes that is activated); it has to be this way because otherwise the entire network would be activated each time a stimulus is presented.

And what I would write next is exactly what Simons wrote in his post, so I’m just going to follow his reasoning, using Loersch & Payne as a framework. First, Simons notes that the effect size for semantic priming is about r=.21. The reported effect sizes for the three other forms of priming tend to be larger. How can this be if these forms of priming are less direct? Dan Simons suggests three possibilities.

  • The chain of associations for construal, goal, and behavioral priming is more direct than for semantic priming. This would require a rethinking of the structure of representations.
  • The mechanisms guiding behaviors in goal priming are different from and more powerful than those underlying other forms of priming.
  • The social priming effects are not as large (or the semantic priming results not as small) as the published reports suggest. 
I think there is a fourth possibility. The primes used in social priming research are stronger than those in semantic priming research. In a typical semantic priming experiment, a single prime is presented, followed (at some interval) by the target. This is then repeated multiple times so that averages can be computed for two or more conditions (for example semantic associates versus unrelated words) within each subject.

In many social priming studies, the sentence unscrambling method developed by Bargh is used. In this task, subjects see about 15 sets of five words, such as "disciplined", "man", "flower", "the", "was". For each set of five words, participants must form a sentence, using only four of these terms, such as "the man was disciplined". Embedded within about 60% to 80% of these sets is a word that is synonymous with the goal, motivation, or value that researchers would like to evoke. All other words are unrelated to the goals. In other words, subjects receive upwards from 9 primes for a single target and they end up using some of them in a sentence to boot.

A first useful empirical step might be to put the four types of priming on equal footing by comparing effect sizes using the sentence-unscrambling task. My prediction, and that of Simons and probably many others, would be that semantic priming produces the largest effect.

Several interesting things might happen. Suppose semantic priming is not the winner of our priming competition. This would have to lead to the theoretical revisions of the structure of mental representations, as Simons notes.

But suppose it proves difficult to reliably get any other form of priming than semantic priming. This might require a reconsideration of the priming paradigm. Surely living in a dictatorship, serving in the army, or participating in a Stanford prison experiment exposes you to a lot more primes than the 9 or 12 in a sentence-unscrambling task, not to mention that those primes are going to be a lot more salient.

Once very strong (and replicable!) social priming effects have been found, it would then be possible to gradually dismantle the priming procedure to find out how much social priming is needed to find an effect. And one could go from there…


  1. Great point! More research is needed into the scaling of primes. I would not be surprised if there is a different threshold of primes to reach the different priming effects as well. I hope that the testing of ideas like those will help us go past the controversy and towards a better framework.

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  3. Interesting post, in general, but some small, but important, inaccuracies.

    Simons notes that "For example, the reported effect size for the priming effect of warm coffee on personality judgments was approximately r =.3.". This is not the case for 'social priming', and the conclusion here is that "The reported effect sizes for the three other forms of priming tend to be larger.".

    In my response to this I noted "Nevertheless, I checked for some of my effect sizes and they seem to be around r=.17-21". Our warmth studies thus produce smaller effects than the single one noted by Simons (and I know other people obtain similar effect sizes as we do).

    This is a bit of a problem in the conclusions drawn from 'social priming' studies, if accuracy is not obtained. There are now a few that are not replicated by some, but the weight-importance one is replicated by some (see, and our own attempt at

    I very much appreciate the elaboration, but accuracy now becomes key. So, just a tiny comment in response otherwise appreciated post.

    [edited for copy-paste error]

    1. I was not really talking about the warmth and weight studies but rather about the bingo and professor prime studies. For these, large effect sizes have been reported. To me, the warmth and weight studies are more in the category of the power-is-up category, i.e., theoretically more plausible and with more modest effect sizes.

  4. I can't believe I'm reading up on primes... (As if I was not split enough already). Great post. Prompted me to get the paper you are taking this from, and now I want to get Anrew and Sabrina in here.

    I noted that L & P want to take a Gibsonian view of what happens after the first prime - which I think is what A & S were getting to in their tweet. And, I find that approach very interesting in other areas, although I'm not spending enough time thinking about it. There are some people, like Leslie Zebrowitz and the soc ev psych people from Arizona (Kendrick, Neuberg and co-workers) who tries to take an ecological view of social perception/interaction. I'm not sure how well they do it.

    And, I'm not sure if L & P are really getting to it either, or just in kind of a hand-wavy way. As you say, it is unfortunate that some of their more extensive examples are based on Stapel research (which, alas, one can assume is not to be trusted), and on Smeester, where, as you say, we don't know (awaits reproductin).

    I wanted to see more n's and effect sizes to try to understand the effects. And I discovered that one that I was particularly interested in (with brinol and petty) looking at priming followed by head-shaking/head-nodding was a presentation, and I couldn't find a subsequent pub in peer-review. Usually that does not worry me, but here I got concerned that I couldn't look up the numbers easily myself.

    I did search for meta-analyses yesterday (but decided that that was enough of distracting me).

    I find the account plausible, but I can't evaluate the strength of the evidence.

    I also hope that this will spur on a flurry of new research. More of Kuhns puzzle laying than stretching out towards novel research.

    I always find that Shanks goes too far in his disbelief that we are nudged and buffeted around by our surroundings. We need to understand this more.

  5. Thanks. You put it nicely: "I find the account plausible, but I can't evaluate the strength of the evidence." Same here.


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