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The Ethics of “Priming” The Brain (& A Question)


I’ve written several posts about brain “priming” experiments, and how the idea could be useful in helping get students in a positive frame of mind prior to taking a standardized tests. Some of these successful experiments have included having students complete “sentence scrambles” prior to a test that, once unscrambled, have them saying they are smart.

Ethically, I think doing that sort of thing seems okay to me because it’s pretty innocuous, it’s designed for the very short-term, and, even though it might not work, I figure it can’t hurt, either. And it’s surely less ethically questionable than spending a huge amount of class time on test prep.

A new study on brain priming has just come out, though, and I think it raises more serious ethical questions.

In the experiment, participants were given one of two groups of words — one related to money (like “wealth” and “price”) and other to time (like “clock” and “day”) In the experiment, which was duplicated with the same results, the people with the money words said they would spend the next twenty-four hours focused on working, while the people with the time words said they would spend it with friends.

If these experiments are indeed true, it could certainly be applied to school — students could be given words related to being successful or doing homework. But that doesn’t set well with me. It just seems like I would be trying to manipulate student behavior outside of the classroom and in their lives. Yes, yes, I know, we all try to do that in other ways. But doing it through brain-priming seems different, and I don’t feel comfortable with it.

At the same time, I think doing it before the standardized tests is okay, and don’t feel like there are the same ethical issues for the reasons I’ve already given.

So, what do you think? Is it a valid concern? Does my distinction make sense? Or do you think brain priming is okay in both situations, or in neither one?

I’ll be asking my IB Theory of Knowledge students these same questions when we begin studying ethics, and I’m very interested in hearing what readers think…

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. The idea of brain priming sits very uncomfortably with me. I think it’s one thing to help students focus and get in a positive frame of mind before a particular task, but it’s something else entirely to be deliberately using covert means to influence the decisions students may take in the long run.

    Many teachers will sometimes plan a lesson with an underlying message, but this is done openly and will often be used as a stimulus for discussion and reflection. The brain priming used in the study you mention seems a lot like subliminal advertising!

  2. I’m more of a pragmatist/functionalist philosophically, and this fails on those grounds. It’s not teaching and learning if the one of the pre-conditions is to keep the learner in ignorance. Why would this be a problem? Using this does not involve a skill that students will acquire, so there it has little or no transferability. It only works long-term if every teacher the kid has (or most) use it. Most of the strategies you highlight for using with students are, ideally, about teaching the students a skill they can take with them. This is a teacher “trick” and not a student skill being implemented. The person it most benefits is the teacher looking for a bump or advantage on their scores, rather than giving kids a skill that they can use in future situations. I have a feeling it will become more and more attractive as the pressure for teachers to “perform” increases.

  3. I have a question about what exactly you mean by “brain priming” – is this different from having kids repeat a positive affirmation before beginning a test? I’ve watched a teacher do that before a standardized test – repeat an affirmation after her, line by line, that included something like “I’m so smart, I could kiss my brain!”, etc… It’s not subliminal in any way, seems to me like a blatant attempt to help kids overcome anxiety and get in a good frame of mind for a few hours of test taking… Most of the kids seem to think it’s kinda silly, but they go along with it. Is this different from what you are referring to?

  4. Chris:
    Larry has said that he is in favor of brain priming and has used it. Your example is similar to what he’s already done.

    The write up in this study seems to suggest that the participants are being given brain priming, but without being told that. This is fine for a cognitive/psych study, but as my earlier comments indicate, does little good in the long run if the kids are not being told what the objective is.

    Larry’s objection was that it would be priming them for non-education behavior (the time/money thing).

  5. Thanks for clarifying, Alice. I was curious what your objection was really to, and I agree that if there’s no connection for the student between the priming and their actions (test taking), is it really helping the student? Also, I’ve been curious what others think about things like the affirmation that I saw that one teacher doing before standardized testing, as I’d never participated in any discussions on the appropriateness of doing something like that.

  6. I guess that I would say that affirmation like that are good for everyday not just test day? Also, it’s best if you aren’t rolling out a bunch of “new” things on test day, that have never been used before. So if she is using the affirmation whenever the kids take any test, or a benchmark/unit test, I’d suppose that would be more effective than saving it for once a year state testing. Larry’s not a chanting guy, and I find those work better at elementary, but I think his sentence word scrambles are even more “priming” than the affirmation.

  7. Thanks so much for the conversation, Alice. I’ve wanted to refine my thinking about this, as I had some unease with what I saw but hadn’t gone any deeper in analyzing it.

  8. Oh it was all great! Thank you for your cogent questions.

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