A Study of How We Perceive People

A close replication of the Srull and Wyer (1979) study that addresses aspects of the Registered Replication Report (2018) that deviated from the original study.

Illustration by Karol Banach

In social psychology, priming is defined in terms of how actions/events influence the activation of stored knowledge (Higgins, 1996), primarily studying how exposing participants to different types of information activates social representations such as stereotypes or traits, that then may affect subsequent perceptions or actions.

Srull and Wyer (1979)

Srull and Wyer (1979) conducted a noteworthy study finding that exposure to hostile related stimuli caused participants in a subsequent task to rate an individual as more hostile. In their study they had participants first complete a sentence unscrambling task where each phrase consisted of four words. The participant’s task was to underline three of the words that would make a complete sentence as quickly as possible.

“leg break his arm” : “break his arm” or “break his leg”

“her found knew I ” : “I found her” or “I knew her”

After completing the sentence unscrambling task, participants were asked to read a brief vignette about a man named Donald who behaved ambiguously hostile and rate him on 12 traits along a scale from 0 (“not at all hostile”) to 10 (“extremely hostile”).

I ran into my old acquaintance Donald the other day, and I decided to go over and visit him, since by coincidence we took our vacations at the same time. Soon after I arrived, a salesman knocked at the door, but Donald refused to let him enter. He also told me that he was refusing to pay his rent until the landlord repaints his apartment. We talked for a while, had lunch, and then went out for a ride. We used my car, since Donald’s car had broken down that morning, and he told the garage mechanic that he would have to go somewhere else if he couldn’t fix his car that same day. We went to the park for about an hour and then stopped at a hardware store. I was sort of preoccupied, but Donald bought some small gadget, and then I heard him demand his money back from the sales clerk. I couldn’t find what I was looking for, so we left and walked a few blocks to another store. The Red Cross had set up a stand by the door and asked us to donate blood. Donald lied by saying he had diabetes and therefore could not give blood. It’s funny that I hadn’t noticed it before, but when we got to the store, we found that it had gone out of business. It was getting kind of late, so I took Donald to pick up his car and we agreed to meet again as soon as possible (Srull & Wyer, 1979).

Results from this study indicated that participants primed with hostile related stimuli rated Donald as more hostile compared to those in the neutral condition. This demonstration of priming participants with hostility-related stimuli caused subsequent information to be encoded using the same trait concept became known as the hostile-priming effect.

Registered Replication Report (RRR, McCarthy et al., 2018)

In 2018, McCarthy et al. (2018) were interested in replicating the results of Experiment 1 of the original Srull and Wyer (1979) study due to failures to replicate priming effects in past studies (Cheung et al., 2016; Doyen, Klein, Pichon, & Cleeremans, 2012). Using 26 independent replications (N= 7,373), McCarthy et al. (2018) found that the methods used based on the Srull and Wyer (1979) study did not consistently produce a significant priming effect.

While the procedure was similar to Experiment 1 of the original study, McCarthy et al. (2018) modified some of the materials, although they were made in consultation with one of the original researchers, Wyer. In the RRR, Wyer and researchers modified the pronouns to be gender neutral. Some wording was changed as well (“slamming down a handset” = “slamming down a phone”), to account for current young adults being unaware with the actions described in the original study. Lastly, the name Donald from the vignette was changed to Ronald to avoid any association with current President Donald Trump.

Other differences between the RRR and the original study included procedural modifications. Researchers focused their study on comparing two conditions from the original study that demonstrated a strong and clear priming effect: the immediate-testing condition (no time delay between the completion of the priming task and the presentation of the target information) using 30 items in the sentence unscrambling task. For the hostile priming condition 24/30 sentences involved hostile words, and for the neutral condition 0/30 sentences involved hostile words, which is a slight departure from the original 1979 study but was done to increase the chances of a priming effect. Lastly, the setting of the study was different, the original study was completed in a lab setting, whereas the RRR was completed in a classroom setting, due to another RRR (Verschuere et al., 2018) collecting data at the same time and required participants to be run in a classroom setting.

Current Study

The current study is part of a meta-analysis currently being conducted. In the current study, we were interested in conducting a close replication of the original Srull and Wyer (1979) study that addressed the biggest criticism of the 2018 RRR that deviated from the original study (participants physical environment during study), use the two conditions that demonstrated a clear priming effect (as was done in the RRR), the immediate testing condition and use of 30 items in the sentence unscrambling task, as well as make some methodological improvements. In the current study when possible, stimuli from the original study was used, but when not possible, stimuli from the RRR was used (sentence unscrambling task). Methodological improvements from the original study were made such as including a test of participants’ awareness of the study’s hypothesis, and the addition of positive controls, which are additional experimental conditions that are run, in which the correct result is very well known and used to assess test validity providing some assurance that the experiment was conducted properly. In the current study when possible, stimuli from the original study was used, but when not possible, stimuli from the RRR was used (sentence unscrambling task).

Method

Participants

Participants included 65 students from an urban college in New York City. Students participated in this research study as part of a requirement for a class. Nineteen participants were excluded from the study for meeting one or more exclusion criteria including not completing the sentence unscrambling task, not providing rating for each of the traits, or failed either one of the two attention checks leaving the total number of participants to forty-six.

Procedure

Participants were first asked to complete a 30-phrase sentence unscrambling task; participants in the hostile priming condition were asked to unscramble 24/30 sentences that contained hostile words and 6/30 sentences contained neutral words. Participants in the neutral priming condition were asked to unscramble 30 sentences that contained neutral words, therefore zero sentences formed hostile sentences. Participants were then asked to read the Ronald vignette and were then asked to rate Ronald using a 0 to 10 scale of various traits (0 = not at all to 10 = extremely). Then participants viewed a screen that gave specific instructions on how to answer the subsequent questions (these served as an attention check and as a positive control). Lastly, after completing the study, participants were asked questions to probe for suspicion.

Results

Nineteen participants were excluded from the study for meeting one or more exclusion criteria including not completing the sentence unscrambling task, not providing rating for each of the traits, or failed either one of the two attention checks leaving the total number of participants to forty-six.

The ratings for traits hostile, unfriendly, and dislikable from the rating task that was completed after reading the Ronald vignette were averaged together to create an average hostility rating for each participant. This is a deviation from the original Srull and Wyer (1979) study, where six traits (unfriendly, dislikable, kind, considerate, thoughtful, and hostile) were assumed to imply either high/low hostility and were used to rate Ronald.

Results from an independent samples t-test indicated that there was not a significant difference between the experimental group (M= 8.26, SD = 2.21) and control group (M= 8.43, SD= 1.14) scores of average hostility, t(32.56) = .33, p > .05.
Post hoc tests of two-way ANOVA revealed that participants had significantly higher ratings for the trait dislikeable if they were female than if they were male in the control group.

Two sets of positive controls were used in the current study to ensure our methods produced expected effects. While we did find a significant effect in one of our positive controls, we failed to detect the other effect. This failure to detect the predicted effect tells us that we should cast doubt on aspects of the study procedure when interpreting our results.

Discussion and Limitations

These results were not consistent with what was found in the original study conducted by Srull and Wyer (1979). Using conditions believed to demonstrate a clear hostile priming effect, immediate-testing condition (no time delay between the completion of the priming task and the presentation of the target information) using 30 items in the sentence unscrambling task did not yield the expected results. Participants who completed the sentence unscrambling task with 80% hostile primes, rated Ronald to be 0.17 points more hostile than the participants who completed the sentence unscrambling task with 0% hostile primes (neutral sentences).

Possible limitations include the number of male participants in the overall study (36 female and 10 male), participants failing to pay attention during questionnaire. Another possible limitation of the current study was the environment in which participants were tested in. Two enclosed rooms were used in the current study, each room having a table with a computer and chair, however in one of the rooms there was an additional table with three chairs around it which did not serve as a highly controlled condition and may have had influenced participants’ responses.

Data Scientist | ML Enthusiast | MA Psychology Grad. LinkedIn-https://www.linkedin.com/in/muriel-kosaka-ab9003a5/

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