Let’s pretend we all agree priming old doesn’t make people walk slower, now what?

The last years there has been an inordinate amount of attention and resources dedicated to examining whether subtly priming people with old concepts can make them walk slower (nocitationneeded). It has gone on for years and taken pages and pages of our limited journal blog and feed space.

Yesterday, I was talking with Brent Donnellan and Uli Schimmack in the Psychological Methods Discussion Group and they suggested that it is important to determine whether old primes make people walk slower. (also look at the way that Donnellan entered his comment with only 1 sentence and then came back later and finished the comment after Uli and I were done talking; this is something I will have to watch out for in the future, especially as the time nuances get lost later)

Anyways, rather than again having some empty argument about replicability, regurgitating all the same old party lines, I simply agreed with them that making people think about old either doesn’t, or only in some contexts, make them walk slower. I’m ok with saying that and I think you should be too (there are at least a few failed replications, so it doesn’t ALWAYS work, even if it does).

Then the question is.. now what?

So we said that, but what did we gain? very little in my opinion.

There are almost no contexts in which this old-slow link matters, I mean, when does it matter whether this link exists or not? Never! 😀 The point of the experiment (as also said by Bargh, Chen, and Burrows) is to say something about how our thoughts and behaviors depend upon factors such as what is salient in our mind at the time.

And this I would say is fairly well established, from the exogenous emotions literature, to stereotype threat, to the IAT, all depend some sort of stimuli priming a certain behavior (which, in the case of the IAT then makes it harder for them to do the opposite).

What would it mean for (Social) Priming Theory to throw out this experiment/ paradigm?

..almost nothing as far as I can tell.

Even the original Doyen et al (2012) failure to replicate says nothing about the theory for which Bargh et al utilize the study to provide evidence for. The whole discussion is about how poor the methods are and how we need to do better. Saying the methods can be better is something I am totally ok with, and I would even suggest that this may be why it is presented in a chapter, rather than in its own paper.

The idea they are suggesting stands with or without this paper. Or does it? This is what I would like to ask and this is the point of the blog post. I see little value in endlessly debating the (un)reality of the ability for old primes to make people walk slower, unless it says something for the theory, but it doesn’t (as far as I can tell).

What part of the theory is at risk here?

What makes this study matter? So far as I can see, it says nothing novel and has relatively little value, theoretically speaking (and even those decrying the study have said little about its theoretical implications). Hold it up as an example of bad methods, that is fine with me, but we are not forwarding ourselves by saying that this effect does not replicate or exist (as far as I can tell). It has no implications (or please point them out!).

Let us define which aspect of the theory (of which this is just an example) is vulnerable and then examine the literature to see if the notion is supported elsewhere. My guess is that it will be.

  • Would we say it calls into question that unconscious stimuli can affect our later behavior? that seems..

    Would it actually matter at all? it doesn’t seem like it.

    far. Certainly I would not feel comfortable saying that there are no examples where stimuli we don’t ‘consciously’ experience change our behaviors. What about nudges, or the IAT, these are essentially demonstrations of a stimuli making a certain response more likely (which also makes it harder to do the opposite, in the case of the IAT).

  • Is it that the stimuli is social? It does not seem absurd to say that our behavior can be unconsciously changed by the people that we (expect to) interact with. After all, I suspect that (at least sometimes) you change the clothes that you will wear based upon who you expect to interact with throughout that day. Even the IAT is social and about prejudices.
  • Is it that the people are not actually there? Neither is santa or ghosts, but they change some people’s behavior! 😀

Once we know which part of the theory behind the potentially false study is being questioned, we will be on our way to making real progress in determining whether there is truth there or not.

Until then, let’s just agree to do better in the future, and we can even pretend that the prime is false, because it will have no substantial effects upon the broader theory (of which this study is only an example).

In sum

I am not so much interested as Brent or Uli in determining whether old primes make people walk slower. To me, this is not an important question, unless it says something about the theory, but nobody seems to be arguing that (social) priming doesn’t exist. So I wonder how much it actually matters. 😀 Maybe instead we should move on to something more interesting, like how we can use science to improve science or understanding why many of the female pronouns are longer than the male pronouns (except in the family setting). 

me priming you to like this post, or does it not work?! we’ll never know if we keep up like this.



  1. Interesting post! I agree that the elderly effect is a bit context-free and may not have real relevance. However I do think it’s kind of special because the prime was a concept of a social category and the primed behavior was simple motor behavior – walking. These two things are quite far apart and the specialty is just that I (we or Bargh himself) cannot think of a convincing mechanism for the link. I can think of activation of concepts influences a later task which involves application of concepts (e.g., in person perception) or activated (but not executed) motor program changes later motor behavior (I experience it myself), but a concept and a motor behavior?! The idea from the beginning is a bit of crazy. It might that they just tried the idea and with some luck (and maybe some QRPs) an effect was found.

    Even among the studies in the original paper, I would say the elderly effect is the most improbable one theoretically and thus the one received most attention and failed replications. In terms of prior belief, I would rank H1 (polite words and waiting time) > H3 (African-American picture and hostility) > H2 (elderly words and walking speed). You can be more or less polite depending on the situation and waiting time is a higher-level decision (compared with walking speed), so this one is slightly more reasonable. The third one is also quite unlikely but at least you see social faces.

    So I don’t know if it’s worth to replicate the elderly effect since no clear known theory predicts it. It’s just that if it’s reliable (very unlikely though) then we need to take it seriously and think about the mechanism. I really hate it when people put everything under the term “priming” regardless of the mechanisms. Primes (as we call them) should all work very differently (if they work).

    1. Hey Chao,

      Thank you for the post and nice points! I thought it was interesting that you suggested the farther up the behavior, the easier to prime. to me, the lowest level should be the easiest to change, like the IAT or the Doctor- Nurse lexical priming that Malte is bringing up (these are reaction times that are changed).

      More generally, I agree that we need to be focusing on the theory, rather than this simple paradigm, and that is what this post really is about (trying to focus on the theory). but I would also say that (social) (behavioral) priming is just a subset of priming and thus have no qualms about saying priming, because it is, just a more specific subset of it. 🙂

      To me, the idea that a stimuli can change our behavior to another stimuli is so simple and obvious that it isn’t even worth arguing about. I mean, I see something scary, and then I jump at the unrelated door slamming. priming! 😀 in my opinion at least.

      The next steps (and I definitely agree with you there!) are to discuss the theory and where the lines are for what works and what does not. This is the real value, I would say. 🙂


      1. Hi Brett,

        Yes, IAT and Doctor- Nurse lexical priming are quite low level – semantic associations in controlled environment. What I mean lower are perception and motor behavior (imagine if seeing the word “old” also makes you see a hill to be steeper!). But yes, walking speed in a natural setting (as in their experiment) might involve some decision-makings, e.g., am I in a harry, or how nice is my surroundings, which are higher processes.

        I like your scary movie example. I think one relevant question might be how long can different primes last. There are experiments on temporal dimensions in lexical priming as I remember, but not sure about other primes.

      2. We could maybe do the hill one with repeated trials? so we say something like, this is a task of visual perception, then we flash em. 😀 have them do it 20 or 30 times.

        The big thing seems to be about the poor methods, very difficult to find an effect with only 1 score for the person. : D Did you see Jacob’s post about within subjects social primiing?


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