Related to: Power of Suggestion
by Steve Sailer
One of the most popular social psychology studies of the Malcolm Gladwell Era has been Yale professor John Bargh's paper on how you can "prime" students to walk more slowly by first having them do word puzzles that contain a hidden theme of old age by the inclusion of words like "wrinkle" and "bingo." The primed subjects then took one second longer on average to walk down the hall than the unprimed control group. Isn't that amazing! (Here's Gladwell's description of Bargh's famous experiment in his 2005 bestseller Blink.)
This finding has electrified the Airport Book industry for years: Science proves you can manipulate people into doing what you want them to! Why you'd want college students to walk slower is unexplained, but that's not the point. The point is that Science proves that people are manipulable.
Now, a large fraction of the buyers of Airport Books like Blink are marketing and advertising professionals, who are paid handsomely to manipulate people, and to manipulate them into not just walking slower, but into shelling out real money to buy the clients' products.
Moreover, everybody notices that entertainment can prime you in various ways. For instance, well-made movies prime how I walk down the street afterwards. For two nights after seeing the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men, I walked the quiet streets swiveling my head, half-certain that an unstoppable killing machine was tailing me. When I came out of Christopher Nolan's amnesia thriller Memento, I was convinced I'd never remember where I parked my car. (As it turned out, I quickly found my car. Why? Because I needed to. But it was fun for thirty seconds to act like, and maybe even believe, that the movie had primed me into amnesia.)
Now, you could say, "That's art, not marketing," but the distinction isn't that obvious to talented directors. Not surprisingly, directors between feature projects often tide themselves over directing commercials. For example, Ridley Scott made Blade Runner in 1982 and then the landmark 1984 ad introducing the Apple Mac at the 1984 Super Bowl.
So, in an industry in which it's possible, if you have a big enough budget, to hire Sir Ridley to direct your next TV commercial, why the fascination with Bargh's dopey little experiment?
One reason is that there's a lot of uncertainty in the marketing and advertising game. Nineteenth Century department store mogul John Wanamaker famously said that half his advertising budget was wasted, he just didn't know which half.
Worse, things change. A TV commercial that excited viewers a few years ago often strikes them as dull and unfashionable today. Today, Scott's 1984 ad might remind people subliminally, from picking up on certain stylistic commonalities, of how dopey Scott's Prometheus was last summer, or how lame the Wachowski Siblings 1984-imitation V for Vendetta was, and Apple doesn't need their computers associated with that stuff.
Naturally, social psychologists want to get in on a little of the big money action of marketing. Gladwell makes a bundle speaking to sales conventions, and maybe they can get some gigs themselves. And even if their motivations are wholly academic, it's nice to have your brother-in-law, the one who makes so much more money than you do doing something boring in the corporate world, excitedly forward you an article he read that mentions your work.
("Priming" theory is also the basis for the beloved concept of "stereotype threat," which seems to offer a simple way to close those pesky Gaps that beset society: just get everybody to stop noticing stereotypes, and the Gaps will go away!)
But why do the marketers love hearing about these weak tea little academic experiments, even though they do much more powerful priming on the job? I suspect one reason is because these studies are classified as Science, and Science is permanent. As some egghead in Europe pointed out, Science is Replicable. Once the principles of Scientific Manipulation are uncovered, then they can just do their marketing jobs on autopilot. No more need to worry about trends and fads.
But, how replicable are these priming experiments?
He then comments on and extensively quotes the Higher Education piece Power of Suggestion by Tom Bartlett, which I linked to at the start of my post. I'm skipping that to jump to the novel part part of Steve's post.
Okay, but I've never seen this explanation offered: successful priming studies stop replicating after awhile because they basically aren't science. At least not in the sense of having discovered something that will work forever.
Instead, to the extent that they ever did really work, they are exercises in marketing. Or, to be generous, art.
And, art wears off.
The power of a work of art to prime emotions and actions changes over time. Perhaps, initially, the audience isn't ready for it, then it begins to impact a few sensitive fellow artists, and they begin to create other works in its manner and talk it up, and then it become widely popular. Over time, though, boredom sets in and people look for new priming stimuli.
For a lucky few old art works (e.g., the great Impressionist paintings), vast networks exist to market them by helping audiences get back into the proper mindset to appreciate the old art (E.g., "Monet was a rebel, up against The Establishment! So, putting this pretty picture of flowers up on your wall shows everybody that you are an edgy outsider, too!").
So, let's assume for a moment that Bargh's success in the early 1990s at getting college students to walk slow wasn't just fraud or data mining for a random effect among many effects. He really was priming early 1990s college students into walking slow for a few seconds.
Is that so amazing?
Other artists and marketers in the early 1990s were priming sizable numbers of college students into wearing flannel lumberjack shirts or dancing the Macarena or voting for Ross Perot, all of which seem, from the perspective of 2013, a lot more amazing.
Overall, it's really not that hard to prime young people to do things. They are always looking around for clues about what's cool to do.
But it's hard to keep them doing the same thing over and over. The Macarena isn't cool anymore, so it would be harder to replicate today an event in which young people are successfully primed to do the Macarena.
So, in the best case scenario, priming isn't science, it's art or marketing.