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Brain “Priming” In The Classroom

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I’ve written several posts about brain “priming” research and how I apply it in the classroom, as well as some of my ethical reservations.

I primarily use it on days for standardized tests, and they’re all fairly innocuous (such as asking students to think and write for a minute about a successful ancestor). Also, even though some researchers have said that priming is not going to be successful if people are told in advance what is being done to them, I tell students ahead of time what we’re doing and why in the hope that they can apply these techniques to help them prepare for future high-pressure situations they might be in, like job interviews, and also because I just wouldn’t feel good about this kind of overt manipulation. I write about these ideas in my upcoming book.

Even though some researchers say it might not work if “subjects” are given prior knowledge of priming, more recent research related to placebos in medical treatment have found them to be effective even if patients know they are placebos (see my book for more information on that research), and it doesn’t seem like it’s that much of a stretch to apply those finding to priming. And, interestingly enough, I just learned about a big controversy going on in brain priming research which just may prove that point.

Apparently, though there have been a number of  successful replications of famous priming experiments, there have also been failed replications (I’m assuming that’s not that unusual in science). These failures have raised questions about if priming truly does exist (though it still has many believers, including Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman).

In one recently well-publicized failed replication of a famous priming experiment, one groups of people were given words to rearrange like like “bingo” and “Florida,” “knits” and “wrinkles,” “bitter” and “alone.” Another group were given words that had no connection. In the original famous experiment, the first group then walked down the hall slower than the second group.

However, in last year’s failed replication, it didn’t work at all — except in one instance. And that was when the group with the “slow” words was told that they were expected to walk slowly. Then they did.

I, and apparently many others who are far more knowledgeable on the subject than me, still tend to believe that priming works. But if we’re wrong, and clearly the jury is still out on that, telling my students ahead of time about the research seems to not only be the ethical way to go but a way that will also lead to positive results.

What do you think — am I missing something?

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

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

One Comment

  1. Yes, I completely believe that priming works; take a look at Malcolm Gladwell’s book about the effectiveness of priming and the Geography of Thought. However, the effectiveness of priming certainly loses its effect when it is told beforehand.

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