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Priming, Replication, and the Hardest Science

Psychology, priming


Concerns have been raised recently about the replicability of behavioral priming effects, and calls have been issued to identify priming methodologies with effects that can be obtained in any context and with any population. I argue that such expectations are misguided and inconsistent with evolutionary understandings of the brain as a computational organ. Rather, we should expect priming effects to be highly sensitive to variations in experimental features and subject populations. Such variation does not make priming effects frivolous or capricious but instead can be predicted a priori. However, absent theories specifying the precise contingencies that lead to such variation, failures to replicate another researcher’s findings will necessarily be ambiguous with respect to the inferences that can be made. Priming research is not yet at the stage where such theories exist, and therefore failures are uninformative at the current time. Ultimately, priming researchers themselves must provide direct replications of their own effects; researchers have been deficient in meeting this responsibility and have contributed to the current state of confusion. The recommendations issued in this article reflect concerns both with the practice of priming researchers and with the inappropriate expectations of researchers who have failed to replicate others’ priming effects.

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