Behavioral priming: it's all in the mind, but whose mind?

PLoS ONE 7(1):e29081 (2012) PMID 22279526 PMCID PMC3261136

The perspective that behavior is often driven by unconscious determinants has become widespread in social psychology. Bargh, Chen, and Burrows' (1996) famous study, in which participants unwittingly exposed to the stereotype of age walked slower when exiting the laboratory, was instrumental in defining this perspective. Here, we present two experiments aimed at replicating the original study. Despite the use of automated timing methods and a larger sample, our first experiment failed to show priming. Our second experiment was aimed at manipulating the beliefs of the experimenters: Half were led to think that participants would walk slower when primed congruently, and the other half was led to expect the opposite. Strikingly, we obtained a walking speed effect, but only when experimenters believed participants would indeed walk slower. This suggests that both priming and experimenters' expectations are instrumental in explaining the walking speed effect. Further, debriefing was suggestive of awareness of the primes. We conclude that unconscious behavioral priming is real, while real, involves mechanisms different from those typically assumed to cause the effect.

DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0029081