In Search of a Prime Example

February 8, 2013 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

If you are interested in Social Psychology (and who isn’t?) you’ll be well aware of some of the wonderful experiments on priming i.e. situations where participants are exposed to a certain kind of stimulus that influences their response to a future stimulus. The evidence on priming appears to suggest, for instance, that:

If you prime people with images relating to money they will be less cooperative

If you prime people with words relating to old age, they will walk more slowly.

If you prime people with a warm mug they will be friendlier

And so forth.

But does the evidence for priming really stack up?

I, like many others I know, had taken such ideas as established facts, as firm as any others in psychology, not least because they were propounded by academic heavyweights like John Bargh, Ap Dijksterhuis, and even Daniel Kahneman. However, in recent years it appears there have been difficulties in replicating the main findings of the priming experiments, and people are beginning to wonder whether priming really works at all.

in recent years it appears there have been difficulties in replicating the main findings of the priming experiments, and people are beginning to wonder whether priming really works at all

There is a wonderful article by Tom Bartlett in the Chronicle Review that details the range and extent of these doubts. One particularly punchy paragraph highlights the heated nature of the debate in the field:

In one of those e-mails, Pashler issued a challenge masquerading as a gentle query: “Would you be able to suggest one or two goal priming effects that you think are especially strong and robust, even if they are not particularly well-known?” In other words, put up or shut up. Point me to the stuff you’re certain of and I’ll try to replicate it. This was intended to counter the charge that he and others were cherry-picking the weakest work and then doing a victory dance after demolishing it. He didn’t get the straightforward answer he wanted. “Some suggestions emerged but none were pointing to a concrete example,” he says. 

Now the stakes are pretty high here. I don’t yet have any settled view, but it does matter that people working in applied psychology, broadly conceived, figure out where they are on this matter, if only because so many people build their practice around the assumption that priming works. For instance, there was a really powerful study done by Common Cause  about priming people who are extrinsically motivated with intrinsic motivators and watching the effects:

much of the values debate in the sustainability field relates to the how you think priming works, but there is little discussion about whether it works.

“Although all the participants in the study had been selected because they held extrinsic values to be more important, we found marked differences between, on the one hand, the way in which participants who had been asked to reflect upon extrinsic values spoke about bigger-than-self problems, and, on the other, the way in which participants who had been asked to reflect upon intrinsic values spoke about these problems. Compared to those primed with extrinsic values, participants primed with intrinsic values spoke about social and environmental challenges in ways that conveyed a stronger sense of moral duty, and a greater obligation to act to help meet these challenges.”

In this particular study, extrinsic values were primed with reference to wealth, preserving public image and popularity, while intrinsic values were primed with reference to affiliation, acceptance and being broad-minded. While the study’s authors are duly cautious about over-extrapolating, they do indicate that their findings show that even those who express no dispositional inclination towards thinking or caring about ‘bigger-than-self’ problems, can begin to do so over time through the priming of intrinsic values.

Come to think of it, much of the values debate in the sustainability field relates to the how you think priming works, but there is little discussion about whether it works.

My impression is that priming fits with our best understanding of the unconscious, automatic, situational and social features of human nature, and probably does ‘work’, in the broadest sense, even when individual studies can’t be replicated. But, then again, on reflection, perhaps I just think that because I have taken too many studies at face value. Perhaps (cue voodoo music) I have been primed to believe in primes…


Values, attitudes and behaviours: Which box would you tick?

September 3, 2012 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Here is an important and rather difficult multiple choice question for people interested in behaviour change. Which of the following best represents your understanding of what makes people change how they think and act?

1) Attitudes Drive Behaviour

i.e. You need to change what people think before you can change what they will do. e.g. I  have come to really value the environment, therefore I have started behaving in a more environmentally friendly way.

2) Behaviour Drives Attitudes

i.e. You need to change what people do before they will change what they think e.g. I started recycling and now I find I really care about not wasting stuff.

3) Both 1 and 2 apply, but in different contexts.

i.e. It depends on the definitions and contexts of the terms in question. e.g. Your attitude to a specific behaviour e.g. smoking, might be a strong predictor of your tendency to smoke, but this doesn’t mean attitudes drive behaviour in general.

4) Both are false, there are never just these two discrete factors in play (and what on earth does ‘drives’ mean anyway…)?

i.e. attitudes and behaviours are just conceptual constructs with fuzzy edges, and they are both always influenced by numerous factors other than each other e.g. I may think voting is a good idea and this may or may not be because I enjoyed voting in the past, but if I don’t vote on a particular day it might be because of my an idiosyncratic mood or the weather, not because of general attitudes or behaviour.

5) To understand behaviour and attitudes, and their relationship, you really need a deeper understanding of values.

i.e. whatever the relationship between behaviours and attitudes, perhaps both are driven by or somehow underpinned by deeply help but somewhat unconscious values. e.g. If I steadfastly use reduce power and water consumption at home after receiving information on the subject, this might be related to wanting to save money, or wanting to save the planet, but you’ll never know which- and what follows for how to achieve similar impact- until you have a better sense of how my values underpin what I do and say.

None of these five options are strictly wrong, which is why it would make a terrible multiple choice question!

In my view, one and two are equally right and wrong because they are partial, which means three must be true, but on reflection that is also only partial. At a deeper level, the philosopher inside knows that four must be closer to the truth, but it’s a bit harsh and unhelpful because we need some heuristics to work with, people care about behaviour and attitudes and you don’t make much practical progress by rejecting all available working theories and concepts out of hand.

If I had to tick one box, I think I would therefore now opt for number five, but let me take this chance to make better sense of options 1-4 in passing:

On the attitudes/behaviour link(briefly):

Through Twitter (Hat tip Jim Mintz) I came upon an excellent overview on the behaviour-attitudes relationship. I distilled this source into the following points:

‘Attitudes’ are not the same as ‘reported attitudes’ because people cannot be relied upon to say what they really think. (Though the ‘bogus pipeline‘, where feasible, can be a good way round this problem).

However, stated attitudes do predict behaviour quite well when

1) Other influences are minimized.

i.e. the behaviour is not heavily related to contextual or situational features.

2) The attitude is specifically related to the particular action.

i.e. your attitude to jogging is a good predictor of whether you jog, while your attitude to fitness may not be.

3) The attitude is particularly potent.

i.e. Your attitude to your health-related habits may change if your life is suddenly at imminent risk because of them.

On the other hand, behaviour is more likely to drive attitudes when one of the following theories applies:

1) Self-presentation theory
People who care about how they are thought of will adapt their attitude reports to appear consistent with their actions to others.

2) Dissonance theory:  We feel tension after acting contrary to our attitudes and to reduce this discomfort we internally justify our behaviour. This is not just about self-presentation but about our own experience of internal coherence. Moreover, the less external justification we have for an undesirable action, the more we feel responsible for it, and thus the more dissonance arises and the more attitudes change.

3) Self-perception theory: When our attitudes are weak, we simply observe our behaviour and its circumstances and infer our attitudes – ie sometimes our behaviours do not so much cause our attitudes as create them. Within this perspective, the “overjustification effect” also known as ‘crowding out‘ can be relevant- it suggests that rewarding people to do what they like doing anyway can make them less likely to do it (e.g. showing up on time, or giving blood.)

So far, so tentative, which has brought me to think more about values and how they relate to behaviours and attitudes.

On Values(briefly):

Three main sources: Common Cause/Values and Frames, The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Values Modes all make major contributions to understanding how our values shape our attitudes and our behaviour. However,  they don’t all agree with each other- not by a long way- on what exactly values are, how exactly values have their influence and what it means for acting on that understanding.

That’s where I am now on this important background issue- trying to figure out which aspects of each of these perspectives makes the most sense, and then thinking of how that knowledge might be best applied to the major behaviour-change imperatives of our day. Any thoughts on the above, or where to look next, much appreciated.


Climate Change: Left, Right and Wrong

July 12, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

As part of a new project proposal I’ve been thinking again about the politics of climate change. I have  a sneaking suspicion that the left-right spectrum is a heuristic that does more harm than good, especially on ecological questions, but it is still useful for highlighting why certain problems appear to be intractable.

On the right, you have some who deny(rather a lot in the US) many who accept but downplay(rather a lot in the UK), and some who accept the gravity and urgency of the problem and believe the solution lies in a combination of technology and market solutions, especially a functioning carbon market. One recent example of a coherent account of this position is given by Republican Bob Inglis. The McKinsey Global Institute report on ‘The carbon productivity challenge’ is also worth a read. Although not explicitly politically, it does seem to lean to the right, by making certain credible but questionable assumptions about the need for a certain amount of economic growth and the level of emissions that may be permissible.

On the left, you have many who get the problem and think ‘something must be done’, but are too busy or habituated to do it themselves, some proposing various kinds of government regulation on emissions, and also some ‘watermelons’ – green concealing red- who use climate change to smuggle in Marxist political ideology. In a recent interview, Naomi Klein give s a lucid account of this kind of challenge:

“If you have an egalitarian and communitarian worldview, and you tend toward a belief system of pooling resources and helping the less advantaged, then you believe in climate change…. Climate change confirms what people on the left already believe. But the Left must take this confirmation responsibly. It means that if you are on the left of the spectrum, you need to guard against exaggeration and your own tendency to unquestioningly accept the data because it confirms your worldview.”

Climate change confirms what people on the left already believe. But the Left must take this confirmation responsibly.


My own view, not shared by all parts of the RSA, is that Tim Jackson’s argument appears to stack up. He is not ‘anti-growth’ but I think he is right that ‘prosperity’ is a social and psychological issue as much as an economic one. In so far as we all share the goal of increasing our prosperity, we need to recognise that pursuing it exclusively through economic growth (in the developed world at least) appears to undermine the social and ecological conditions on which our wider prosperity depends. We can’t take economic decisions as if they were not social and environmental decisions too.

It may be politically naive to think it could ever be possible to have a capitalist economy without economic growth being the goal, but if it begins to look simply necessary, as I believe it is beginning to, then we may have to try.  In this respect I am reminded of Aristotle’s line: “If at first you do what is necessary, and then do what is possible, soon you find you are achieving the impossible.”

We can’t take economic decisions as if they were not social and environmental decisions too.

In this context I believe the challenge for the right is that continuing to pursue economic growth in the developed world within ecological limits necessitates the impossible- namely a level of social and technological innovation several orders of magnitude higher than the industrial revolution. (Jeremy Rifkind is one of the few visionaries who has considered how this might work as ‘the third industrial revolution’) I think it is a fair rejoinder for people on the right to say- yes that sounds (almost) impossible, but no less so than trying to create a no-growth economy.

This balance of impossibilities and competing necessities is important to keep in mind- climate change is a truly wicked problem.

But here is what really worries me. The conventional wisdom on solving climate change is that we need to throw everything at it – a bit of behaviour, a bit of regulation, a bit of technology, a bit of design, a bit of economic incentivising and so forth. But what if we get in each others’ way? We have some arguing that we need green growth and investment in green technologies, and others saying no, we need to change the paradigm, stop seeking growth and reduce consumption. When the remaining time to act is so scarce that it is frustrating to be on tracks that don’t seem to support each other and if anything are somewhat contradictory. Collectively, in so far as this is an issue, it is one we should collectively accept is neither left nor right, but simply wrong.

It is in this context that I believe the Common Cause Report was profoundly right about the need to think of how different types of climate change intervention reinforce certain kinds of values. Let’s stop pretending that those who share an understanding of the problem are natural allies, and start thinking more deeply about the values we share and the values that separate us. We will continue to disagree, but it would be great if we could begin to understand the nature and depth of the disagreement well enough to help each other deal intelligently with the shared problem at hand.

The Common Cause Report: A line in the sand?

November 29, 2011 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Matthew Taylor  argued yesterday for the need to keep communications on climate change simple, and implied that the more radical call for an overhaul in our value system was too utopian to work. He may be right, but an Oliver Wendell Holmes quotation sprung to mind:

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side.”

A truly ‘simple’ approach to climate change would have to go beyond (transcend and include) the complexity of the issue, rather than avoiding it. It is not just about insurance, or a sophisticated form of the precautionary principle. As Matthew pointed out in his lecture on 21st Century Enlightenment, the world system continues to be driven by three main logics.

“The success of the Western post-Enlightenment project has resulted in a society like ours being dominated by three logics: of scientific and technological progress, of markets, and of bureaucracy. The limitation of the logic of science and of markets lies in an indifference to a substantive concern for the general good. If something can be discovered and developed it
should be discovered and developed. If something sells then it should be sold. The problem with the logic of bureaucracy, as Max Weber spotted over a hundred years ago, is its tendency to privilege procedural rationality (the rationality of rules) over substantive rationality (the rationality of ends).”

We need an approach that recognises the power of these logics but is not complicit in their perpetuation. If simplicity is the answer, it lies on the other side of this complexity. (Or, at the risk of overquoting “Everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.”- Einstein)

So here is why I think we need to take a viewpoint on the common cause report. Their argument- that we need to work directly with our cultural values- represents a radical change of strategy, and what the profound Psychologist Paul Watzlawick might call ‘second order change’- not merely a strategy for change(first order change) of which their are thousands, but a meta-strategy for changing the way things change.

Their argument- that we need to work directly with our cultural values- represents a radical change of strategy, and what the profound Psychologist Paul Watzlawick might call ‘second order change’- not merely a strategy for change(first order change) of which their are thousands, but a meta-strategy for changing the way things change.

I hope to come back to the Common Cause Report later(and a recent selection of their updated briefings will be worth writing about), but for those who are unfamiliar, the following captures the gist of the argument(forgive the long quote):

“It is increasingly evident that resistance to action on these challenges (humanitarian and environmnetal crises) will only be overcome through engagement with the cultural values that underpin this resistance. It also seems clear that, in trying to meet these challenges, civil society organisations must champion some long-held (but insufficiently esteemed) values, while seeking to diminish the primacy of many values which are now prominent – at least in Western industrialised society. The values that must be strengthened – values that are commonly held and which can be brought to the fore – include: empathy towards those who are facing the effects of humanitarian and environmental crises, concern for future generations, and recognition that human prosperity resides in relationships – both with one another and with the natural world. Undoubtedly these are values that have been weakened – and often even derided – in modern culture….they are values that must be championed if we are to uncover the collective will to deal with today’s profound global challenges.”

That bald overview does not do justice to the structure of the argument, or its considerable evidence base. The heart of the challenge is moving from values are that essentially selfish to values that lead us to identify with ‘bigger than self’ problems.

It it difficult to be take a stand on either side of this argument. At first blush, you either position yourself as an ally of the values that are (arguably) destroying our habitat, or you look naive in arguiing for a complete otherthrow of everything that is assumed to be acceptable and normal. A third perspective is to deny the importance of values in the context of global challenges. So which is it? How do you begin to position yourself on this issue?

I look forward to writing again about this later, especially if I get some good feedback.