Dr. Gary Gutting, a smart person who’s a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame and a blogger at the New York Times, explains why priming as a persuasion play is no big deal: While it works in the lab, it doesn’t work in the field. He then quotes priming experts like John Bargh and Daniel Kahneman and sources like Nudge to back his assertion. Here’s his outro on priming.
Priming experiments remain important sources of information about the details of how our minds work. It’s possible that they might someday yield valuable techniques for modifying real-world behavior. (Here is one promising if very preliminary example.) But for now claims that they have deep philosophical significance or major practical consequences have scant support.
Gutting is just flat wrong in his assertion about no practical impact with priming. I’ll start with one line of work related to mental health and subliminal priming: Mommy And I Are One.
With that clue, you might recall the work of Lloyd Silverman from the Subliminal chapter in the Primer and the therapeutic use of priming for people with serious mental health problems as a means to moderate their dysfunction. Silverman had Other Guys look at subliminal exposures of a prime like, Mommy And I Are One, several times in one session with sessions repeated over several weeks. Unhealthy people got better compared to controls on standard measures of mental health.
We know Silverman’s play works because we’ve got science to prove it and the only way to prove something works is to use science. Gutting misses Silverman’s work and would probably discount it because it employed research standards, making it less than a mess of life practical example . . . but if you ran Silverman’s play in the mess of life, you’d have no good data to prove it works. You see the paradox the philosopher has put himself in.
Now, quickly, Gutting only looks at conscious priming where the Other Guy is exposed to a prime that is right in front of Her face in plain view while subliminal delivery runs the prime, but below conscious awareness so that the Other Guy never sees the message in her conscious mind. Silverman’s work demonstrated in controlled field studies that people with serious mental health problems scored higher on accepted measures of psychological well-being after subliminal priming. It works on real people in the real world.
Let’s get even more practical: Brands. As we recently observed in a nice research package that proves the practical point, Brands operate as Primes hiding in plain sight that activate approriate attitudes and intentions. What’s especially nice about this research is that it contrasted Brands with Slogans noting that Slogans make more explicit persuasion demands which elicit more defensiveness from Other Guys. Brands, by contrast, fly below the radar and even as Other Guys see a brand in the store, They never realize all that primed cognition bubbling just below awareness from all those years of watching branding building advertising. Thus, while research proves the prime with Brands, practical experience also proves the Brand: Everyone uses them. Thus, we have a priming example with Brands that is both theory and practice . . . and profit.
And just to pile on with scientific evidence, a recent meta-analysis looked at the past 25 years of work on a specific application called evaluative priming which presents a prime immediately in front of another stimulus to see if the prime changes the attitude to the new stimulus. Across over 70 papers with 125 separate experiments, the average Windowpane was Small+ (about a d of .35), but with a huge range of variation. Here’s a graphic that shows the effect for each experiment.
You can sense the average and the range. Under some circumstances, priming shows much larger Windowpanes. For example, here’s a graphic illustrating a two way interaction.
When there is a shorter delay (SOA) between the prime and the stimulus on an evaluative task, the Windowpane is Large. Compare that to the meta average Windowpane you get on pronouciation tasks, regardless of delay time between prime and stimulus.
You see why priming is so difficult to execute as a practical persuasion play. You could legally run a standard priming play (unscrambling sentences with words like buy, spend, consume, desire or something like evaluative priming) in a sale situation or on a website, but chances are very good most Other Guys would see the manipulation and resist it. But, to hide the priming in a way that would be both effective and legal, would be almost impossible.
Gutting’s analysis completely misses or obscures this science. Hey, assume that the Fed gets Healthcare.gov up and running. Hmmm. See any priming possibilities with it? Overwhelmingly people would come to the website by themselves and with a fair amount of worry, concern, and mistrust – in other words in a highly distracted condition that might make them more vulnerable to priming plays hidden in plain sight. They wouldn’t expect a priming play (even if called a Nudge) and if you code the software properly, they could never again reproduce exactly the page they saw that primed them to make a desired choice.
The problem isn’t the theory or research, it is the legal, ethical, and processing limitations on priming. Priming on a government website would start a revolution. Priming in most live sales situations is impossible because you cannot control the processing field needed to deliver the prime (althought let’s see what happens when Google Glass gets going.)
Indeed, Gutting’s complaint about priming could be made about most persuasion plays and much of social psychology. The plays and concepts rarely work as clearly and obviously in the real world as they do in the lab, so therefore they are no big deal or as Gutting would put it:
But for now claims that they have deep philosophical significance or major practical consequences have scant support.
Hey, kids, let’s have a practical world where vampires and panthers can truly operate not only beyond their good and evil, but beyond our good and evil, and use persuasion the way the CIA used persuasion in its published interrogation manuals from the 1970s or its unpublished interrogation protocols from the Global War On Terror. No major practical consequences? Any volunteers for the treatment group to test Gutting’s hypothesis under these conditions? Would Gutting drink the hemlock and give himself up to a persuasion panther for 30 days and nights in an undisclosed location?
That contrast should expose the error in Gutting’s thinking. The problem isn’t in the theory or application. Polite society won’t allow that theory to operate freely precisely because it does have major practical consequences.
As to the “deep philosophical significance,” I’ll leave that to thinkers deeper than myself while noting that the fathers of Western philosophy, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle never even conceived of priming anything much less the human mind. Perhaps there are no deep philosophical thoughts to think on this one if the founders of Western Philosophy left that thought unconceived.
Herring, D. R., White, K. R., Jabeen, L. N., Hinojos, M., Terrazas, G., Reyes, S. M., & Crites, S. R. (2013). On the automatic activation of attitudes: A quarter century of evaluative priming research.
P.S. I’m always troubled over thoughtful thoughts about science in pop press outlets called something like, The Opinionator. Makes me think the opinion is more important than the science and that a well expressed opinion will be better received even if scientifically wrong.
Of course, I’m wrong about this. We’ve already proven that incorrect opinions about science don’t harm science; it’s those rude and nasty observations from Opinionator commenters!