Smut Clyde wants to talk to you about violence in psychology. What drives perfectly normal-looking psychology professors to publish violently fraudulent clickbait trash? From evolutionary psychology perspective, is this peer-reviewed drivel about social priming meant to be an academic alpha male’s war cry, or a strategy to attract mates among students?
Dr Smut does here what every upright and self-respecting academic does, and self-plagiaristically recycles his old blog post for your reading pleasure.
When you’ve begun to think like a gun The rest of the year has already gone
By Smut Clyde
Don’t all psychologists like to imagine themselves as Hannibal Lecter, and the rest of the human race as predictable, easily-manipulated, edible puppets? Umm, me neither. Yet there is a high tolerance for reductionist superiority in academic psychology, displayed in the acceptance and publication of Dr Nicolas Guéguen‘s rectally-sourced anecdotes,¹ and Brian Wansink‘s miraculous dietary interventions, and the whole “social priming” scholium of flimflam… for all these just told psychologists what they already believed about the ease of steering unconscious behaviour by pulling on the levers inside people’s heads.
The sight of a rifle hanging on a wall in Act 1 makes it more likely that the playwright will use it in Act 3. This is an example of the Weapon Priming Effect, where exposure to a weapon-related vocabulary, as well as to the sight of firearms, predisposes people towards acts of aggression. Similarly, symbolic ‘violence’ in video games leads to violence In Real Life, and news of a school mass-shooting primes politicians owned by the National Rifle Association towards blaming gun violence on video games rather than on the gun-dealers. And Weapons Effects are a special case of the ‘social priming‘ tradition of psychology, which was popular and much-run-after among the cool kids not long ago.
Semantic priming effects came first, which are just about use of words. If some fiendish researcher asks you a question about searching for something, to which you reply “rifle”, this increases the chance that firearm-related words will turn up in your answers to later questions… for, let’s say, the next minute or so. Nodes have been activated in your semantic network, mumble mumble. The “spread of activation” from using or hearing a word does not care about the context of that word.
The social priming enthusiasts extended this to claim that your behaviour is also affected. After we induce you to use and think about (say) age-related words, you will walk more slowly when you leave the laboratory, because your mental construct of “old age” has been activated (that was Bargh’s study from 1996 and it did not age well).² Social Primers take metaphors seriously so they conclude that everyone else does. Language is not only a virus, it is an Influencing Machine and an Air-Loom.
Such ideas are immensely flattering to writers (crediting them with great power and great responsibility) so they found its way into popular culture, by way of books about tapping into the power of unconscious cognition with Nudging and Blinking. Five or 10 years ago, the social-priming line of research evolved to its exuberant apotheosis, like the attire of the Irish Elk³… just before collapsing under its own weight.
For the field’s flag-bearers and poster-boys (Diederik Stapel, Jens Förster) were found to be making everything up, and the wheels came off the trolley problem, and the whole replication crisis revealed that people who weren’t making everything up were reliant on p-hacking, HARK-ing, torturing the data to obtain a confession, and cherry-picked fishing expeditions to provide publishable units. Normally you don’t expect to return from foraging trips with fish and cherries but the rules are different in academia.
None of this impinged on the spotless, eternally-sunlit mind of a Quartz columnist who breathlessly regaled readers with the whole discredited mishegoss, inspiring me to write a 2018 version of this post.
“Because of the role they play in our thought processes, the metaphors we choose to use can dramatically impact people’s perceptions in ways that have real-world consequences.“
Four events provide the excuse to recycle that earlier version now:
1. An Expression of Concern from the brave editors of Scandinavian Journal of Psychology for one of Guéguen’s inventions (“Women’s hairstyle and men’s behavior: A field experiment”);
2. A tweet about Brad Bushman‘s IgNobel-prize-winning paper about Eyes of the Beerholder (Bègue et al, Brit J Psych 2013), in which people’s delusions of attractiveness are enhanced by making them think that they’re drunk (without wasting research funds on actual beer);
- “‘Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder’: People who think they are drunk also think they are attractive” (Bègue et al, 2013).
3. Another of Bushman’s papers attracted more questions from a PubPeer contributor.
- “Low glucose relates to greater aggression in married couples” (Bushman et al PNAS 2014)
4. Andrew Gelman grumbled some more about a 2013 Bushman paper that promises “long-term effects” in the absence of any long-term testing, and about the 2018 Correction that didn’t correct it: “The erratum does not clarify that the title of the paper is at best extremely misleading and at worst the most horrible thing published in a psychology journal since the critical positivity ratio people dined alone.”
- “The more you play, the more aggressive you become: A long-term experimental study of cumulative violent video game effects on hostile expectations and aggressive behavior” (Hasan et al, 2013, PubPeer comments).
Joe Hilgard argues that the study’s reported effect sizes are
fake implausible, although consistent with those authors’ other results.
Wash away, boy, Shelly’s shoes
Going back to that Quartz column, the opinionator invokes the Macbeth Effect. It turns out that three is the optimum number of witches for making an ambiguous prophecy that persuades a clan leader to kill his liege and seize the throne of Scotland. Also, inciting subjects to wipe their hands reduces their awareness of guilt, social obligation and responsibility (except when it doesn’t)… on account of “Washing one’s hands of it” being a common English idiom. Or perhaps the reduction in guilt is the source of that idiom.4
I am on the record as mooting that experiments in this line of research are all tentative and preliminary and should be called “Pilate studies”, but no-one listens to Uncle Smut.
Alternative title #2:
Blood Sugar Sex Magick
But I have buried the lede here. This is so that the lede can rise again on the 3rd Day IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE PROPHECY.
What I really want to rant about is “Ego Depletion”. This is where psychologists compare will-power to muscular strength (because it is called “power”), so that prolonged use exhausts it, while a boost of blood-sugar is enough to revive it. Not so much “out of the strong came forth sweetness”, more the other way around. This isn’t really a priming phenomenon, because it’s not the subjects who respond to the power of words and treat a metaphor as a real connection, it’s the psychologists.
And it seems that undepleted Ego also enhances self-control and pro-social behaviour (Xu et al Appetite 2014), i.e. Sweetness of blood = Sweetness of disposition, which is why diabetics are always altruistic. Make a note of Brad Bushman, professor of communication at Ohio State University and the last author there.
This whole line of research reached Peak I-am-Not-Making-This-Up with the Married-Couple / Voodoo-Dolly study Bushman et al PNAS 2014. According to our sources, this was originally pitched as a Reality-TV show that went horribly wrong so it was repurposed for academia.
1. Recruit couples under cover of darkness.
2. Induce them to “just play a game” in which they blast each other with annoying and deafening noises to induce rancour and bad feelings.5
3. Measure blood glucose.
4. Give each partner a supply of pins and a generic featureless soft toy.
6. Publication, press-release, clickbait publicity.
Now there does exist a literature on Voodoo-Doll pin-poking as a way of measuring aggression and anger against one’s children, although that was an imaginary doll and the pins were equally non-existent (McCarthy et al 2016). Neuroskeptic did not hold back in his criticism.
In Bushman et al., however, the Pin Count alternates between aggression, and a proxy variable for measuring self-control (or the lack thereof)… Don’t we all want to poke pins into fabric mannequins labelled as our loved ones, or to deface their photographs or whatever? Umm, neither do I. All that holds us back is our
iron glucose-fueled self-control, in the service of a sense of decorum and obedience to the rules of society that say no voodoo. Andrew Gelman did not hold back in his criticism.
Alternative title #3:
Following the footsteps Of a rag doll dance
We are entranced Spellbound
It may surprise you to learn that our man Bushman has weighed in on hand-washing, and reports the Macbeth effect to be so strong that even watching someone else’s toilette works as a conscience-cleansing prime (Xu et al Front Hum Neurosc 2014). This is fortunate as it means that reading through that earlier digression on social priming was not a total waste of time. Unless you washed hands, lost all sense of social obligation, and didn’t bother to read it.
However, Bushman’s main output seems to be in the Weapons Priming field. One paper was retracted because his student made up the data about video games training the players in violence; another went t.u. because the data looked bogus and the co-author was unavailable to vouch for or explain them (due to the political shenanigans in Turkey); a meta-analysis incurred an Expression of Concern and then a substantial correction.
- ““Boom, Headshot!”: Effect of Video Game Play and Controller Type on Firing Aim and Accuracy” (Whitaker & Bushman, Comm Res 2012, PubPeer comments).
- “Effects of Violent Media on Verbal Task Performance in Gifted and General Cohort Children” (Çetin et al, Gifted Child Quaterly 2016, PubPeer comments)
- “Effects of Weapons on Aggressive Thoughts, Angry Feelings, Hostile Appraisals, and Aggressive Behavior: A Meta-Analytic Review of the Weapons Effect Literature” (Benjamin et al, PSPR 2017, RW reporting).
These experiences did not deter Bushman from reviewing the topic for Current Opinion in Psychology. Then reviewing it again a year later, for the same journal… as Guest Editor of a special issue (to which he contributed four other papers, plus an Editorial)… in almost the same words. This inspired a retraction, after raised-eyebrows and criticism from Gelman and Neuroskeptic. In the authors’ defence they may have depleted their blood glucose at the time and thereby lost all ego-control.
- “The weapons priming effect” (Benjamin & Bushman, 2016).
- “The weapons effect” (Benjamin & Bushman, 2018, RW reporting).
Back at Riddled Research Laboratory we find ourselves primed to design experiments along similar lines. Does the act of wiping clean a slate dispose people towards forgiving past transgressions and accepting a “Fresh Start” correctional policy? If you task subjects with lashing together a mock-up of an aeroplane out of twine and bamboo poles, do they become more desirous of consumer goods and more convinced by wistful-thinking cargo-cult theories in psychology?
1. Gueguen’s work is arguably closer to EvoPsych than to social priming, though agreeing with the latter on the mechanistic nature of human behaviour. Nick Brown reviewed the whole oeuvre exhaustively, and inimitably, and I content myself with just stealing a few magisterial paragraphs:
“As well as the articles we have blogged about, he has published research on such vital topics as whether women with larger breasts get more invitations to dance in nightclubs (they do), whether women are more likely to give their phone number to a man if asked while walking near a flower shop (they are), and whether a male bus driver is more likely to let a woman (but not a man) ride the bus for free if she touches him (we’ll let you guess the answer to this one). One might call it “Benny Hill research”, although Dr. Guéguen has also published plenty of articles on other lightweight pop-social-psychology topics such as consumer behaviour in restaurants (does that sound familiar?) that do not immediately conjure up images of sexual stereotypes.”
“… waitresses get more tips if they have blonde hair or use make-up & wear a red t-shirt, but women wearing red also find it easier to hitch a ride, as do women with blonde hair or larger breasts. Those same women with blonde hair or larger breasts also get asked to dance more in nightclubs. As well as earning her more tips if she is a waitress, using make-up also makes a woman more likely to be approached by a man in a bar, although her choice to wear make-up might reflect the fact that she is near ovulation, at which point she is also more likely to accept that invitation to dance; and so it goes, round and round.”
“And of course, as is common for research with themes of sexual attraction and other aspects of everyday human behaviour, these results readily find their way into the popular media, such as the Daily Mail (women are more likely to give their phone number to a man who is carrying a guitar), the Guardian (people drink more in bars with louder music), The Atlantic (men think that women wearing red are more likely to be interested in sex) and the New York Times (customers spend more money in a restaurant if it smells of lavender).“
2. Bonus Bargh:
3. Gratuitous pedantry: Extending the use of “antler” to become a synecdoche for an entire rack of cranial excrescence may be common in vulgar speech but for hard-core pedants it is unacceptable.
4. “Lacan was able to show that the Unconscious was really another writing system, ‘structured like a language’, and that fortunately the language was French, and not German, and was therefore much wittier than had been supposed. Showing that what we call dreams are actually a series of bedtime puns on French words, he was thus not only able to still French suspicions, but actually to establish the domination of French culture even at the level of the id.” Malcolm Bradbury, My Strange Quest for Mensonge.
5. This may sound unethical, but it was all for the worthy cause of studying “Intimate partner violence [which] affects millions of people globally”. Also, Bushman reassures us that although not specified in the paper, ethical approval was considered and granted.
Qian Zhang’s research on weapons effects is too good to omit, even if his papers aren’t so social-priming-centric. Zhang’s statistics are garbage, his corrections consist of adding arbitrary increments to F values to increase their significance, and his raw data (when provided for inspection) turn out to be fabricated.
- “The effects of viewing violent movie via computer on aggressiveness among college students” (Zhang & Zhang, 2014) [retracted]
- “Exposure to weapon pictures and subsequent aggression during adolescence” (Zhang et al, 2016) [retracted]
- “The Short-Term Effect of Online Violent Stimuli on Aggression” (Zhang et al, 2016) [erratum]
- “Short-Term Exposure to Movie Violence and Implicit Aggression During Adolescence” (Zhang et al, 2018) [retracted]
- “The Priming Effect of Violent Game Play on Aggression Among Adolescents” (Zhang et al, 2018) [retracted]
- “Effects of cartoon violence on aggressive thoughts and aggressive behaviors” (Zhang et al, 2019) [retracted]
Retractions take years of publisher procrastination, and Joe Hilgard is worried that the main impact of his Sisyphean labour is simply to teach Zhang how to fabricate more plausible numbers.
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