Monday, February 04, 2013

Questioning Kahneman's "Fast Thinking"

San Diego Zoo

Over a year ago I read Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman's book won many awards, including the National Academy of Sciences Best Book Award of 2012. Kahneman acknowledges his indebtedness to Yale's John Bargh. Bargh has invested his entire career in "priming studies." This is the idea that most of our "choices" are really the result of unconscious influences. This is Kahneman's "fast thinking."

Now Bargh and Kahneman's priming theory is being questioned. See today's Chronicle of Higher Education - "Power of Suggestion." "The amazing influence of unconscious cues is among the most fascinating discoveries of our time - that is, if it's true."

"What was once widely praised is now being pilloried in some quarters as emblematic of the shoddiness and shallowness of social psychology." 

The "priming effect" is this: a warm mug makes you friendlier; or seeing an American flag influences you to vote Republican. The color of a doctor's room will calm you down and makes you friendlier. And so on. The  idea is that subliminal prompts make you do all kinds of things. Is that true?

A group of skeptical psychologists now challenge Bargh's thesis, saying Bargh's studies cannot be replicated.  Uh-oh. Non-replicability of a scientific theory is its death-knell. We'll see.