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…