|John A. Bargh|
January 9, 1955|
|Alma mater||University of Michigan (Ph.D., 1981)
New York University
|Known for||Perception-Behavior Link, Goal-Activation, Unconscious Processing|
John A. Bargh (; born 1955) is a social psychologist currently working at Yale University, where he has formed the Automaticity in Cognition, Motivation, and Evaluation (ACME) Laboratory. Bargh's work focuses on automaticity and unconscious processing as a method to better understand social behavior, as well as philosophical topics such as free will. Much of Bargh's work investigates whether behaviors thought to be under volitional control may result from automatic interpretations of and reactions to external stimuli, such as words.
Bargh is particularly famous for his demonstrations of priming affecting action. One of the most well-known of these studies reported that reading words related to elderliness (e.g., "Florida", "Bingo") caused subjects to walk slower when exiting the laboratory, compared to subjects who read words unrelated to the elderly. Though cited almost 4,000 times, controversy has emerged because several recent studies failed to replicate the finding. Starting in 2013 and 2014, many additional reports began to emerge of failures to replicate findings from Bargh's lab. These included "social distance priming" and "achievement goal priming" and lonely people's preferences for hot baths. (However, in 2015 there was report of a successful replication of the association between loneliness and bathing habits, published in the journal Emotion, indicating a possible role for cultural differences in this case.) In March 2015 yet another paper from Bargh lab was reported to be unreproducible: Rotteveel and colleagues sought to duplicate two studies by Chen & Bargh (1999) arguing that objects are evaluated automatically, triggering a tendency to approach or avoid.
Bargh was born in Champaign, Illinois. He attended the University of Illinois as an undergraduate, and the University of Michigan for post-graduate training under Robert Zajonc. He received his Ph.D. in 1981. That same year he was hired as an assistant professor at New York University, where he remained for 22 years. He has since been working at Yale where he has formed the Automaticity in Cognition, Motivation, and Evaluation (ACME) Laboratory.
Bargh was influenced by the work of his PhD advisor at the University of Michigan, Robert Zajonc, who concentrated on the fundamental processes underlying behavior, including an emphasis on affect and cognition. Much of Zajonc's work touched upon processes that occur outside of awareness. Bargh's work in automaticity and unconscious processing further explores the extent to which information processing occurs outside of either intent or awareness. In contrast to Ellen Langer, who denigrated such mental processing as "mindless", Bargh followed the lead of William James in stating that automatized (or "habitualized" in James' terminology) processing can be a beneficial adaptation. Bargh's research focuses on the influence of environmental stimuli on perception and behavior, automatic activation, the effects of conscious and unconscious priming, the psychological effects of physiological stimuli, and implicit cognition. Bargh's concentration on the influence of unconscious and automatic behavior and cognition grows from a fundamental interest in the construct of 'free will.'
Exposure to stimuli in the environment can influence how individuals make impressions of others. Bargh and Pietromonaco randomly assigned subjects to be exposed to words that were either related to hostility or were neutral. The words were presented outside of the subjects' conscious awareness. In a second task, all subjects were asked to read an ambiguous story about a man and rate him on various measures. Those subjects that were subliminally exposed to words related to hostility rated the man more negatively than those subjects in the control condition.
Stimuli may be automatically evaluated in ways that affect behavior, an automatic evaluation. In a study conducted by Chen and Bargh, subjects were faster to pull a lever toward themselves (an approach tendency) when a word had a positive valence than a negative valence, and were similarly faster to push the lever away (an avoidance tendency) when the word had a negative valence compared to a positive valence. The "sequential evaluative priming paradigm"  refers to the related phenomenon of response times reducing when primed by stimuli with congruent valence. In an examination of the generality of the effects of this paradigm, Bargh, Chaiken, Govender and Pratto show that simply seeing or hearing mention of stimuli triggers automatically activated evaluations. This occurs even when the subject has not been asked to think about their evaluation of the stimulus beforehand. It was further shown that novel stimuli are automatically evaluated and produce the same effect as nonnovel stimuli: when positively valenced novel stimuli prime positively valenced targets, reaction time is faster.
Stimuli presented outside of awareness have also been suggested to influence the interpretation of subsequent ambiguous and semantically-unrelated stimuli. Thus subjects asked to define homographs after being subliminally primed with positive, negative, or neutral valence words subsequently evaluated the valence of the ambiguous words with that of the prime.
In Stereotype priming, subjects are primed with a stereotype or with people associated with those stereotypes. Subsequent behavior tends to be consistent with the stereotype. For instance, subjects primed with the concept of the elderly while doing a simple task, later walked more slowly when leaving the experiment than did subjects in the control group. Subjects that were primed with African American faces reacted with more hostility toward experimenters. The authors are clear in drawing a distinction between the priming used in these studies and the myth of subliminal messages. Whereas the latter were once thought to be able to influence people's behavior in a way out of line with the individual's intended behavior (i.e. to go buy a Pepsi while watching a movie), the automatic activation present in these studies was consistent with the activity at hand and therefore did not cause the subjects to alter their intended behavior.
The Chameleon Effect refers to the unconscious tendency to mimic others' behavior. Chartrand and Bargh discovered and named this effect after observing subjects unconsciously mimic confederates. Subjects perform a task in which they work closely with a confederate that is trained to repeatedly engage in one of two behaviors: rubbing his or her face or jiggling a knee. Subjects tend to mimic the behavior of the confederate, both when the confederate makes eye contact and smiles frequently at the subject and when the confederate does not make eye contact and was non-smiling. Furthermore, when confederates mimic the behavior of the participant, the participant later rates the confederate as more 'likable' than confederates who do not mimic behavior. This effect was shown to be more pronounced in people that are more dispositionally empathetic. The authors suggest that this unconscious mimicry could lead to greater group cohesion and coordination.
Stimuli are often interpreted and assessed based on their relevance to our goals. During goal pursuit, objects consistent with that goal are rated more positively than are goal-irrelevant objects tested in a sequential evaluative priming paradigm. These ratings also predict behavior towards those objects.
Beyond this, Bargh suggested that associations between goals, their related behaviors, and environments in which they are consistently pursued, can become linked in memory and be unconsciously activated to influence behavior without conscious awareness. Unconscious goals are activated with priming, or the presentation of a cue that automatically activates its related mental representation of the goal, which triggers related behaviors. For instance, subjects primed with an achievement or cooperation goal perform better on an intelligence task compared to subjects who are not primed.
Bargh suggests that unconscious goals are pursued flexibly, and automatically adapt to changing environments during tasks in the experiment.
Bargh has also found that priming can influence self-regulation. Mere presentation of words associated with "reappraisal" was contrasted with a conscious reappraisal group who also received the explicit instruction to try and reappraise their emotional state with a goal to regulate emotion. All subjects then gave a short oral presentation while having their heart rate monitored. Those merely perceiving reappraisal words were reported to have a significant reduction in heart rate, equal to that of subjects explicitly instructed to use reappraisal to control anxiety, despite not being aware of the primes.
Physical sensations may unconsciously translate into psychological interpretations. When subjects were asked to briefly hold a warm coffee mug, and then fill out an evaluation of a person described ambiguously, subjects reported warmer feelings toward the target person versus when they were asked to briefly hold an iced coffee. In a second study, subjects in the 'cold' condition were also more likely to choose a reward for themselves as opposed to giving the reward to their friend, whereas in the 'warm' condition participants were more likely to choose the reward for their friend. The physical properties of objects that subjects are touching can similarly influence social impression formation and decision-making. Bargh and his colleagues also found evidence of physical warmth influencing how giving and prosocial participants were. Those who held the warm beverage were more likely to choose a reward or gift for a friend than for themselves. However three independent studies with larger samples failed to replicate the effect.
Bargh and Shalev are currently addressing how this psychological-physiological link can be used to regulate emotion. Correlational studies show that participants rated highly on a loneliness scale, also tend to take longer showers at higher water temperatures. In a follow-up study, a manipulation of physical warmth to make the subjects colder resulted in an increase on the loneliness scale. Altering one's physical situation can thus result in emotional responses, even without conscious awareness. A paper by Donnellan and colleagues reported 9 failures to replicate the results of Bargh and Shalev. However, Bargh and Shalev have successfully replicated their studies, indicating cultural differences in bathing and showering habits."" They also noted that in the 2 studies in which Donellan et al. attempted to most closely follow their original procedure, they did replicate their original results, but not in the other 7 studies in which considerable procedural changes were made.
In "Beyond Behaviorism", Bargh and Ferguson define both automatic and controlled processing as deterministic in nature, the difference being that the former occurs unintentionally and without volition, but that both are deterministic in that they have causes. They argue that most processing, including processing of stimuli that greatly influence behavior and decision making, occurs outside of consciousness. They suggest that only our inability to recognize the powerful activity occurring outside of awareness leads some to believe that they are the masters of their choices. Bargh posits, along with Daniel Wegner and other scientists in the field, that the concept of 'free will' is an illusion. Bargh and Earp  make this point explicit: "Clearly it is motivating for each of us to believe we are better than average, that bad things happen to other people, not ourselves, and that we have free-agentic control over our own judgments and behavior--just as it is comforting to believe in a benevolent God and justice for all in an afterlife. But the benefits of believing in free will are irrelevant to the actual existence of free will. A positive illusion, no matter how functional and comforting, is still an illusion."
Elsewhere, Bargh has written: "Free will is a problematic concept because of the word 'free.' People confuse the word 'free will' from 'will.' If someone has a gun held to your head, are you acting freely? No. Since we're studying causal mechanisms, you can't say things are free from international causation. I've been surprised by my findings every step of the way."
This article lacks ISBNs for the books listed in it. (January 2014)