Advancing Research on Unconscious Priming: When can Scientists Claim an Indirect Task Advantage?
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Description: Current literature holds that many cognitive functions can be performed outside consciousness. Evidence for this view comes from unconscious priming. In a typical experiment, visual stimuli are masked such that participants are close to chance performance when directly asked to which of two categories the stimuli belong. This close-to-zero sensitivity is seen as evidence that participants cannot consciously report the category of the masked stimuli. Nevertheless, the category of the masked stimuli can indirectly affect responses to other stimuli (e.g., reaction times or brain activity)—an effect called priming. The priming effect is seen as evidence for a higher sensitivity to the masked stimuli in the indirect responses as compared to the direct responses. Such an apparent difference in sensitivities is taken as evidence that processing occurred unconsciously. But we show that this “standard reasoning of unconscious priming” is flawed: Sensitivities are not properly compared, creating the wrong impression of a difference in sensitivities even if there is none. We describe the appropriate way to determine sensitivities, replicate the behavioral part of a landmark study, develop methods to estimate sensitivities from reported summary statistics of published studies, and use these methods to reanalyze 15 highly influential studies. Results show that the interpretations of many studies need to be changed and that a community effort is required to reassess the vast literature on unconscious priming. This process will allow scientists to learn more about the true boundary conditions of unconscious priming, thereby advancing the scientific understanding of consciousness.