Social Priming: Money for Nothing?

By Neuroskeptic | July 23, 2015 7:37 am

Can the thought of money make people more conservative?

The idea that mere reminders of money can influence people’s attitudes and behaviors is a major claim within the field of social priming – the study of how our behavior is unconsciously influenced by seemingly innocuous stimuli. However, social priming has been controversial lately with many high profile failures to replicate the reported effects.

Now, psychologists Doug Rohrer, Hal Pashler, and Christine Harris have joined the skeptical fray, in a paper soon to be published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (JEPG) (preprint here).

Rohrer et al. report zero evidence for money-priming effects across four large experiments. They conclude that “Although replication failures should be interpreted with caution, the sheer number of so many high-powered replication failures cast doubt on the money priming effects reported…”

Each of the four experiments was a replication of one of the experiments in a previous study, Caruso et al. (2013). That paper, which also appeared in JEPG, reported strong evidence that purely incidental exposure to images or phrases related to money causes, amongst other things, an increased faith in capitalism, and the belief that “victims deserve their fate”.

However, Rohrer et al. report that they couldn’t replicate any of the four effects they looked for. Here’s their summary of the results (colors are mine):


In the original studies (red bars), the ‘money’ condition (bright) produced increases in the various behaviors compared to the control condition (dark). In Rohrer et al.’s replications (blue), there were no differences by condition. The error bars are smaller for the blue bars too, reflecting the replications’ higher sample sizes.

Ouch. But it doesn’t stop there.

Not content with publishing their own null results, Rohrer et al. also reveal the existence of unpublished negative findings.

They contacted Eugene Caruso, and also Kathleen Vohs, lead author of Vohs et al. (2006), the highly cited Science paper that first launched the money-priming paradigm. Both authors were helpful, they say, and they learned the following:

For Vohs et al. (2006), “the authors conducted two additional money priming studies that showed no effects, the details of which were shared with us.” and “reported nine dependent measures that were statistically affected by the manipulation in the predicted direction (one in each experiment) but did not report 19 additional measures that were statistically unchanged”.

Meanwhile, Caruso et al. said that they “conducted four studies showing a null effect that were not included in the paper, and two of their five reported studies included one or more unreported dependent measures”.

Finally, Rohrer et al. note that currency priming a la Caruso et al. (2013) was part of the Many Labs Project, a large collaborative effort to replicate thirteen claims in psychology. This showed no evidence for the money priming effect (or for another kind of social priming).

In her response to Rohrer et al., Vohs notes that there have been 165 published reports of money-priming, from researchers in 18 countries.

She suggests that the reason why Rohrer et al. did not find any money-priming effects whereas Caruso et al. did may lie in the nature of their participant samples: Caruso’s participants were mostly University of Chicago students, and this university is known for its achievements in economics. Vohs says that Chicago students may have had a more positive attitude to money, and thus be more prone to money priming, than Rohrer’s participants, who were drawn from an online pool of volunteers at UCSD and from Amazon MTurk.

In my view, this kind of post-hoc explanation for negative findings is unfalsifiable and not very helpful. It also seems slightly implausible in this case, because of the sheer number of different populations in which the money priming effect has been reported. As Vohs herself says, “People in North America, Europe, and Asia, show similar effects. College students, working adults, children as young as 4 years old, and business managers show similar effects…” So the money priming effect doesn’t depend on the population studied.

As Neuroskeptic reader Luke Eglington, who brought these papers to my attention, said: if the effect is so fragile, then Vohs, Caruso, and others must have been very lucky, to consistently recruit the right participants.

On the other hand, Rohrer et al. say that they don’t have any explanation for the positive findings in Caruso et al. The results are unlikely to be due to publication bias, they say. The effects are too strong, and highly unlikely to occur by chance, even taking into account that there were unpublished null results too.

Rohrer et al. also reject the idea that methodological differences could account for the failures to replicate. But this leaves us with the question of what is going on here. Hmm.

ResearchBlogging.orgDoug Rohrer, Harold Pashler, & Christine R. Harris (2015). Do Subtle Reminders of Money Change People’s Political Views? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General

Kathleen D. Vohs (2015). Money Priming Can Change People’s Thoughts, Feelings, Motivations,
and Behaviors: An Update on 10 Years of Experiments Journal of Experimental Psychology: General

  • Emil Kirkegaard

    Let them publish so data so data detectives can do their work.

  • Gregory Francis

    The Vohs et al. (2006) Science paper was investigated by Francis, Tanzman & Williams (2014) for excess success. It found P_TES for the Vohs paper was 0.002, which means that if the true effects were as large what was reported in the paper, then studies with the reported designs would show the level of success that was reported only one time in 500 tries. I find it interesting that Vohs admits to publication bias and selective reporting, which validates the TES analysis. Such selective reporting might have been standard practice in 2006, but it seems to undermine the conclusions of their paper. Details of the TES analysis are at

  • T.

    One of the “top” social psychological scientists admitting to having contributed to publication bias and selective reporting like it’s no big deal is all you need to know about this “scientific” discipline and topic. Great stuff, thanks for your “contribution” to science!

    So, how can we tell the bad research from the good research (if there is any)? Should we only trust pre-registered studies?

    • Neuroskeptic

      Well, to be fair, I’d rather that they admitted to it than they didn’t admit to it.

      But in general I think preregistration is the answer.

      • T.

        So how do we get there? I doubt fake scientists will pre-register their studies voluntarily, so fake research will still be performed and fake evidence will still be attempted to get published.

        I don’t understand why journals and funders don’t require mandatory pre-registration of studies to avoid continued wasting of resources and accumulation of nonsense published.

        It seems such an easy and basic thing to do. Am i missing anything? Is it normal for science to have such low standards?

        • Julia Burg

          Journals and funders cannot decide what is right on their own. They ask experts. And guess who the experts are…

          • T.

            I just read this: (1) With a few neat tricks you can apparently make anything, even nonsense, become statistically “significant”.

            These neat tricks are widely used in today’s (psychological) science: (2)

            I think journals and funders can definitely decide that they want to adhere to some stricter criteria for their publications/ scientists. I even go as far as stating that i think journals must if they want to be taken seriously and likewise funders must if they want to justify giving away money for research.

    • Nick

      I guess you may be referring to this:

      If not, please let me know, because that will make three “top” psychologists (Baumeister, Vohs, and yours) owning up.

      (By the way, wasn’t Vohs associated with Baumeister’s lab for quite some time?)

  • Uncle Al

    Consider a $2000/month Social Security payment, a brick of $20s. Driving along I-10 at 0200 hrs, you tear the band asunder and let 100 $20 bills progressively flutter into the wind. So what? You get another $2000 next month.

    Consider drawing $2000 out of the bank to purchase a really nice wooden dining room table set with 10 chairs, and sales tax. You are driving along the freeway with open windows and the cash blows out of your open handbag. Disaster!

    It isn’t the money, it is the value. That is why Welfare, activism, and social engineering overall create poverty. So what? You get another lump next month.

    • Vin

      Are you actually serious? I can GUARANTEE you that in either of your scenarios, said recipient would spend a good part of the rest of the week remorselessly hunting down every single bill. (oh and find me a Welfare Recipient that would even consider spending their ENTIRE monthly income on a table and I’ll give you 50 bucks!). Please remove your bias and leave them at the door.

      • Neuroskeptic

        I have to say that when I was writing this post I didn’t think anyone would see a link to welfare policy.

    • OWilson

      It’s a fact that free stuff is not valued as much as earned stuff.

      Public housing is vandalized. Public health care is abused, public welfare is abused, even public taxes are abused by government.

      The concept of private property, is what separates roaming bands of foragers from an ordered society, what we call civilization.

      That first one dollar bill stuck up behind the till in a store or restaurant signifies more than 100 pennies, and is treated with more reverence than subsequent profits.

      Folks rarely wash and wax rented cars :)

      • Nacho Sanguinetti

        I don’t know where you are from, but maybe you spoke in too general terms. I think there is a bit of cultural bias in these things. In some countries in this world public things are not vandalized or abused as often. Some people actually respect public run stuff, because they know it is actually not free (payed in taxes) and it is actually good to have all your population living as closest to dignity as possible.

  • Ibn al-Haytham

    I don’t think many would believe similar claims anyway (just how would priming change such entrenched beliefs as those mentioned? does anyone have even a sketchy idea about a mechanism?). I think they are most likely in the regime that Andy Gelman often writes about – the effects may well be existent in the strict sense (of course, what we believe would not be completely independent of what we see), but so tiny that they are dwarfed by the huge measurement noise they inevitably face when measuring people’s beliefs. and in those oceans of noise one may fish for the big white p-value, as suggested by this post.
    but again, the original claim just sounds so implausible that i’m wondering who had bet on it in the form of grant money.

  • Rolf Degen

    German Comedian Eckart von Hirschhausen had a funny take on one of the original studies:

    “Kathleen Vohs said in an interview that men should count some money before they try to conquer a woman, because they would then act more self-assured. Dear Mrs. Vohs, why before? During!”

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  • Mila Evans

    I think the Chicago/UCSD-MTurk could affect the outcome. No reason to believe Vohls when she implies that it’s universal.

    (“As Vohs herself says, “People in North America, Europe, and Asia,
    show similar effects. College students, working adults, children as
    young as 4 years old, and business managers show similar effects…”)

    That’s just self-promotion.

    I don’t know the typical backgrounds at Chicago and UCSD but money might have little to do with it and it’s farther from the data. (Doesn’t everyone like it?) The Chicago students might be less wishy washy>

    This was in Rohrer’s abstract btw: “this effect was moderated by participants’ nationality.” Basically this is sociolology as much as it is social psych or social cognition.

    • Julia Burg

      Maybe it is more the other way arround: What if MTurkers are constantly money primed? Money it what people have in mind when they do Mturk studies. In this case the control group would be missing.

      • Mila Evans

        Good point.

        In any case all that might have been influenced is answers to a questionnaire.

  • Tim

    This is so wrong. How can you admit to deliberately not reporting 19 out of 29 measures like it’s nothing?! Seriously, that is like evading taxes on nearly 70% of your income because taxes are not convenient for you. If it isn’t already, selective reporting like this should be made illegal and possibly result in a retraction (announced in big letters, frontispiece style). Selective reporting undermines the whole point of scientific inquiry; if this is tolerated we could just as well resort to anecdotal evidence.

    Is my reaction too strong? Let me know if it is, but conduct like this infuriates me.

    • D Samuel Schwarzkopf

      I don’t think it is wrong. I don’t understand this sort of behaviour either. Perhaps the most important lesson one of my mentors taught me was that you should seek to publish every result you found regardless of what it shows and I’ve always tried doing that.

      Sure, I have done pilot experiments and other experiments that simply didn’t work the way we imagined them when setting out (and by “didn’t work” I mean there was something fundamentally wrong with the task or the stimuli etc that we didn’t envision or that a sanity check failed – not that the results didn’t come out the way I wanted :P).

      But in my filedrawer there are at present only three completed experiments we haven’t published (or submitted) anywhere. One was a student project that should be written up but the student left. Hopefully we’ll get this one out eventually. The second one was an experiment that was almost identical to one we did publish except that the stimulus design was slightly worse – and the results of both were extremely clear. And the third was a replication of a colleague’s work in which I found the complete opposite to the original finding. Under different circumstances I might have wanted to publish this but since the original wasn’t published (the replication was supposed to be part of the study) we felt it made more sense to leave it lie (especially since this wasn’t really my work I didn’t want to invest more time in it).

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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