To even wonder is to know the answer:
… priming experiments seldom tell us how important priming is in realistic situations. We know that it has striking effects under highly simplified and controlled laboratory conditions, where the subjects are exposed only to the stimuli that the experimenters provide. But it is very difficult to know how significant priming stimuli (thinking about money, large numbers, abstract questions) would be in a real-life, uncontrolled environment, where all sorts of stimuli might be conflicting with one another. Also, there is seldom any reason to think that even a strong priming effect will last very long.
Meanwhile, Wray Herbert notes in the Association for Psychological Science journal,
Today the idea of unconscious priming is under intense scrutiny. It’s not that the notion is entirely implausible, critics say, but the scientific evidence is inconsistent and unreliable. Scientists have reported failed attempts to replicate studies supporting the idea, including a failed replication of Yale University scientist John Bargh’s original elderly priming study. Bargh himself has publicly defended the concept and his methods, pointing to successful if qualified replications. Most notably, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, in an open letter to the field, singled out priming research as “the poster child for doubts about the integrity of psychological research.” He urged his colleagues to “do something about this mess.”
Enter Carnegie Mellon psychological scientists Roberta Klatzky and David Creswell to do just that—or at least to offer some insight into the mess. To understand priming, they reasoned, it would help to know precisely how—through which of the mind’s pathways—the effects are supposed to be mediated. That is, how do we get from the words Florida and lonely to actual shuffling down the corridor? Understanding that process might in turn explain why the positive findings from one experiment seem to vanish in another, apparently identical version of the study. Klatzky and Creswell are not priming experts, but they recognized that a well known theory from the field of human perception might illuminate the mechanisms underlying priming—and in the process explain the field’s uneven track record.
The thing is, this “inconsistent and unreliable” stuff has doubtless been known for some time and only now, in the wake of other scandals, do we hear about it. And we may hope for “insight” into the mess.
Peer review, where are you?
Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose