Unconscious priming studies (for adults only)

The last few years have seen a calvacade of studies demonstrating that unexpected elements in the environment can unconsciously prime attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.

Just a few recent examples:

1. People are more likely to judge a person as “warmer” just after holding a warm (compared to a cold) cup (Williams & Bargh 2008a):
2. Job candidates whose resumes were seen on a heavy (versus light) clipboard were rated as better qualified for a job (Ackerman 2010)
3. The hotter the temperature is in a room or outside, the more likely people are to believe in global warming (Li 2011)
4. Working on a jigsaw puzzle with rough (versus smooth) pieces made people rate a subsequent personal encounter as “less smooth” (Ackerman 2010)

Based on the abundance of findings, there seems to be a robust market in unconscious priming.

Why do we see these kinds of effects? Yale psychologist and implicit cognition guru John Bargh said “… these (kinds of) demonstrations suggest a cognitive architecture in which social psychological concepts metaphorically related to physical-sensory concepts … are grounded in those physical concepts, such that activation of the physical version also activates (primes) the more abstract psychological concept.” What he’s describing is essentially conceptual metaphor theory, which originated with George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in the early 1980s. The theory suggests that cognition is largely based on metaphoric thinking, whereby the structure and logical protocols of one domain guides or structures thinking in another.

Aside from their theoretical contributions, these kinds of studies also provide a certain entertainment value in that they demonstrate associations between a given stimuli and an attitude or behavior that confounds our expectations.

A new study from University of New Mexico researchers presents yet another priming effect that can be added to the ever growing list. But this one ain’t for the kiddies.

In a nutshell: The study showed that the smell of poop, er, uh, fecal matter, (delivered in the form of a spray from a bottle of “Liquid Ass,” a novelty odor liquid) made participants more likely to report their intentions to use condoms in the near future. In other words, the smell of feces motivated safe sex attitudes. Although unpleasant to describe and probably even more so to have carried out, it does fit theoretically with a literature showing that pathogen avoidance/visceral disgust response can function as a mechanism to elicit unexpected effects on seemingly unrelated behaviors and attitudes. I recently discussed a study that looked at the flip side of the same coin. In this study, priming concerns about cleanliness made participants more likely to condemn a slightly immoral sex act and more likely to report conservative political attitudes (Subjects in the experimental condition were standing next to a soap dispenser).

While credit certainly has to be given for being able to work “Liquid Ass” into an experiment, I’m not sure that the researchers have shown pathogen-avoidance concern is the mechanism motivating subjects’ change in attitude.

For one, sufficient control questionnaires don’t seem to have been employed, asking participants to report attitudes in domains other than those in which pathogen avoidance plays a role. Perhaps the nasty scent mediated a more general shift in risk taking or impulsivity. Furthermore, self report is notoriously unreliable at predicting behavior; that is, participants’ answers might in part reflect self presentation concerns as much as shifts in attitude that would result in behavioral change. Finally, it’s possible that the general unpleasantness of the stimuli caused the shift in attitude and not it’s viscerally disgusting nature. One possible control could be an additional condition with an unpleasant, non-pathogen avoidance related stimuli from a different domain (e.g., an unpleasant noise).

Although it would be interesting to see if the effects would still hold up to these slight modifications, I don’t think I would want to be the one to run it…

Anderson ML (2010). Neural reuse: a fundamental organizational principle of the brain. The Behavioral and brain sciences, 33 (4) PMID: 20964882

Tybur JM, Bryan AD, Magnan RE, & Hooper AE (2011). Smells like safe sex: olfactory pathogen primes increase intentions to use condoms. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 22 (4), 478-80 PMID: 21350181

Ackerman, J., Nocera, C., & Bargh, J. (2010). Incidental Haptic Sensations Influence Social Judgments and Decisions Science, 328 (5986), 1712-1715 DOI: 10.1126/science.1189993

Li Y, Johnson EJ, & Zaval L (2011). Local warming: daily temperature change influences belief in global warming. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 22 (4), 454-9 PMID: 21372325



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