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A new multi-lab collaborative effort replicated the methods of a classic and influential study in the field of social psychology. The new results suggest that conventional wisdom about a procedure used to influence judgments about others, known as “hostile priming,” might not be as robust as once believed.
The effort was led by NIU research associate Randy McCarthy and psychology professor emeritus John Skowronski. The report detailing the results is published in the journal, Advances in Methods and Practices in Psychological Science.
Hostile priming is an effect within an area known as “social cognition.” Social cognition is a sub-field of social psychology, a branch of study that examines how social interactions with others affect our thinking, behaviors and emotions. McCarthy said the original 1979 report is “a very influential study in social cognition,” and noted that it has been cited more than 1,900 times.
The original 1979 research seemed to demonstrate that exposing participants to hostility-related stimuli caused them subsequently to interpret an actor’s ambiguous behaviors as hostile. This became known as the hostile-priming effect.
In the original study, participants first descrambled sets of words to form sentences. In one condition, 80 percent of the descrambled sentences contained words connoting hostility, such as “fight,” “yell” or “argue.” In another condition, only 20 percent of the sentences contained such words.
Participants then read a vignette about a man named Donald who behaved in an ambiguously hostile manner and rated him on a set of personality traits, using a 0-to-10 scale. They also rated the hostility of several ambiguously hostile behaviors.
Participants who descrambled mostly hostile sentences rated Donald and the ambiguous behaviors as each being about three scale points more hostile than did those who descrambled mostly neutral sentences. This difference represents “a particularly large effect for this type of a study,” McCarthy said.
“Further, it has been long suspected there were statistical errors in the (original) study, making for much larger values than what is typically seen in social psychology,” McCarthy said. “Thus, because the original study was both influential and there were questions about the accuracy of the reported results, we thought it was a good candidate to replicate.”
The new study was conducted under the umbrella of the Association for Psychological Science’s Registered Replication Reports—multi-lab, high-quality replications of important experiments in psychological science.
Data were collected by 26 labs from across the world, with 22 meeting the inclusion criteria of having at least 100 participants. The combined studies had a total (after exclusions) of 5,610 participants, compared to less than 100 study participants in the original finding.
The new study did not exactly replicate the original research protocol. However, whenever possible, the current project used the original study materials, including one of two original “Donald” vignettes, though the actor name was changed to Ronald. Through communications with an editor at the journal, the protocol was approved by an author of the original research article.
Overall, participants who were primed for hostility rated Donald as being only .08 points more hostile than those who were not primed in this new study. That means the original study’s detected effect was more than 30 times larger than the effect found by the meta-analysis conducted to analyze the McCarthy team’s multi-lab data.
While a hostile priming effect emerged in the direction predicted by the original study, the detected effect from the meta-analysis is very small. McCarthy said the observed effects were so small that they are “practically zero.”
The new results also found that participants primed for hostility rated ambiguously hostile behaviors as being slightly less hostile than their study counterparts. Not only is this effect much smaller than the original reported effect, but it is numerically in the opposite direction.
The new results have implications for future research. “At a minimum, these results suggest that we should really reduce our confidence that these methods produce the hostile-priming effect in a way that would be routinely detectable,” McCarthy said.
Skowronski added: “These results might cause researchers to take a fresh look at a research area that was thought to be settled science.”
McCarthy noted that many results in the field of social psychology reported in prior years sometimes are not as robust and replicable as once believed. “The field of social psychology is undergoing a healthy process of self-scrutiny. We are ‘kicking the tires’ on our published literature.”
The field has supported many initiatives, such as Registered Replication Reports, to determine the replicability of earlier findings. “Our study provides an excellent example of how such efforts contribute to the self-correcting nature of science. Also, this project was a great example of ‘team science.’ It was a lot of fun to work with researchers from all over the world,” McCarthy added.
For the past seven years, McCarthy has worked as a research associate at the NIU Center for the Study of Family Violence and Sexual Assault. This fall, he is serving as a visiting assistant professor of psychology at NIU.
The replication project was supported by funding from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, the Association for Psychological Science and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.
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