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What Is "Social Priming"?

By Neuroskeptic
Jan 26, 2018 6:01 PMMay 21, 2019 6:00 PM


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“Social priming” has recently been one of the most controversial topics in psychological science. With failures to replicate proliferating, the field has been called a train-wreck. But what exactly is it?

Train Wreck

Here’s how I defined social priming in a 2016 post:

“Social priming” has been the punching-bag of psychology for the past few years.

The term “social priming” refers to the idea that subtle cues can exert large, unconscious influences on human behaviour. The classic example of a social priming effect was the “professor priming” study in which volunteers who completed a task in which they had to describe a typical professor, subsequently performed better on a general knowledge task. In other words, as the authors put it, “priming a stereotype or trait leads to complex overt behavior in line with this activated stereotype or trait.”

Although it was a booming research area for many years (that professor priming paper has 756 citations), social priming has lately come under heavy criticism. Many researchers have failed to replicate previously claimed effects.

Now, in a new preprint, Andrew Rivers and Jeff Sherman criticize me, and others, for using the term ‘social priming’ so as to exclude less controversial priming effects from the definition. Rivers and Sherman make several other points in their piece, but in this post I’m going to focus on the issue of definition.

Discussing my 2016 post, in which I argued that a just-published study by Payne et al. did not provide evidence of social priming, because the method was (I thought) very different from a typical social priming experiment, Rivers and Sherman say the following:

Indeed, there are many differences between the gambling paradigm developed by Payne and colleagues (2016) and more frequently discussed paradigms such as Bargh et al. (1996). However we are unable to determine why the label ‘social priming’ applies to one type or another… To this point, no one has provided clear guidance as to what kinds of effects should ‘count’ as ‘social priming’.

So I decided to trace the history of the term.


The words “Social priming” were first used together in 1970 about mice, but the earliest use in anything like the modern sense came in 1984 in a paper by Elliot R. Smith. Smith used the phrase to describe this 1981 paper by Wyer and Strull.

Wyer and Strull primed participants (using a sentence construction task) with concepts such as ‘hostility’ or ‘kindness’ before asking participants to read a vignette about a man (‘Donald’) and then to describe his actions. ‘Hostility’ primes led people to view ‘Donald’ as being more hostile and generally less sympathetic, while kindness priming had the reverse effect.

Smith called Wyer and Strull’s paradigm “social priming” because it concerned social judgment (or perception) – evaluating another person, ‘Donald’. “Social priming” was a good description in this context, but ironically, Wyer and Strull (1981) would not be considered a paradigmatic example of “social priming” today, because it didn’t show that priming affected the participants’ own behaviour.

Following Smith (1984), the first classic “social priming” study in the modern sense appeared in 1996: Bargh, Chen and Burrows, the infamous ‘elderly priming’ study. Bargh et al. used methods similar to Wyer & Strull’s, but with a key difference: they reported that priming a social concept caused participants to enact it, e.g. priming rudeness made people act rudely to an experimenter. Yet Bargh et al. didn’t mention “social priming”, instead referring to its findings as showing “automatic behavior priming” or “stereotype assimilation”.

As far as I can see, it was not until 2005 that the term “social priming” was applied to the kind of studies that have lately become punchbags. John Bargh used “social priming” in this way in his 2005 book, and also in 2005, other authors used it in the same way. By 2012, a review article on social priming effects made no mention of Wyer and Strull at all.

The final stage in the development of “social priming” was when the term expanded to include not only stereotype-based effects, such as in Bargh’s work, but to include priming by mere images or reminders of concepts such as money and sex/romance. I suspect this first occurred outside the scholarly literature, but it had happened by 2015 when a Nature news piece defined “social priming” as the idea that “certain behaviours are claimed to be modified unconsciously by previous exposure to stimuli, such as an American flag, or thinking about money”.


So what can we take from this? I think it clear that “social priming”, as the term is currently used, is a misnomer. There is nothing especially social about priming with money and becoming greedy, and very little that is social about priming with an elderly stereotype and then walking slower.

But what other term can we use? Bargh et al.’s “automatic behavior priming” is quite nice, but taken literally, it could apply to all kinds of priming, even classical semantic priming effects (pushing a button is a behaviour, and the prime is automatic).

In my view, the essence of what we call “social priming” is that the prime does not prime people to give a particular response (as in semantic priming) but rather, the prime is said to change the participants’ behaviour in a more global sense. Money priming, for instance, is claimed not just to make people want money, but (amongst other things) to make them “assert more strongly that victims deserve their fate”. It’s an abstract, global change in mental or behavioural state which could manifest in many ways.

Therefore, perhaps the most appropriate term for this kind of work would be global state priming?

See alsoUnderstanding priming effects in social psychology: What is “social priming” and how does it occur? (2014) Daniel Molden

h/t Rolf Degen for pointing out the Rivers and Sherman preprint.

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