Intention Invention in Implicit Cognition
By B. Keith Payne, Jazmin Brown-Iannuzzi, Melissa Burkley, Nathan L. Arbuckle, Erin Cooley, C. Daryl Cameron, Kristjen B. Lundberg
“I meant to do that.”
It is a trope used the world over to regain composure after an embarrassing mistake. Watch college students crossing a busy quad and you will likely see the “I meant to do that” look as someone straightens himself up from a stumble. “I was just gonna start running anyway,” says Ellen Degeneres. Research in implicit social cognition suggests that behavior is often influenced by unconscious or automatic processes that lead to unintended thoughts and behavior. Do people respond to their own unintended behavior by claiming to have done it on purpose?
Consider how subjects respond on implicit tests like the Affect Misattribution Procedure (AMP). On each trial of this procedure, a prime item appears for a fraction of a second before a target item (usually a Chinese pictograph) which is itself succeeded by a black and white pattern mask. Subjects are instructed to rate the pictographs as pleasant or unpleasant while trying their best not to let the prime influence their ratings. Nonetheless, subjects are typically influenced by the primes. They seem to confuse their feelings toward the primes and targets. The AMP has become one of the most commonly used implicit measures in recent years, and studies suggest that its reliability and validity compare very favorably with other implicit tests (Payne et al., 2005; Cameron, Brown-Iannuzzi, and Payne, 2011). If subjects are instructed to “try their best” to be unbiased by the primes but their responses are nonetheless biased, what are they to make of their own intentions?
The authors of a recent paper asked respondents to complete an AMP and then to rate how much they had disregarded the instructions and instead intentionally rated the prime photos (Bar-Anan & Nosek, 2012). The vast majority of subjects indicated that they had not intentionally rated the primes. However, the small minority who claimed that they intentionally rated the primes displayed larger effect sizes, higher internal consistency, and larger associations with other attitude measures that those who denied rating the primes intentionally. One interpretation of this association is that the AMP’s high reliability and validity are driven primarily by a small minority of respondents who ignore the instructions and intentionally rate the primes. If so, then this finding would cast doubt on the implicit nature of priming in the AMP.
There is, however, another interpretation: subjects who are most strongly influenced by the primes might infer that they must have rated them intentionally. This interpretation is consistent with classic research on self-perception (Bem, 1967) and research suggesting that the feeling of conscious intentions is sometimes an illusion (Wegner, 2002). That is to say, reports of intent may be confabulations made up to explain or justify how one has behaved. So does intentional rating cause AMP effects, or do AMP effects cause perceptions of intentional rating?
To find out, we (Payne et al., 2013) first replicated the procedure used in Bar-Anan and Nosek’s (2012) paper by administering an AMP to measure racial attitudes, followed by a question asking subjects to rate the extent to which they had intentionally rated the primes. Just as in Bar-Anan and Nosek’s studies, we found that subjects with the largest and most reliable priming effects were more likely to say that they had intentionally rated the primes. Our experiment, however, also included a second condition. After completing the AMP, subjects in this condition were asked to rate how much their responses were unintentionally influenced by the primes.
If self-reports of intention were true reports about the causes of subjects’ behaviors, this would be simply a reverse-scored version of the original question. But in fact, subjects with the largest and most reliable priming effects also tended to agree that they were the most unintentionally influenced. Subjects who were most strongly influenced by the primes therefore claimed both to have intentionally rated the primes and to have been unintentionally influenced by them. If we interpret subjects’ reports as true reports of the causes of their actions, then we would conclude both that the AMP’s psychometric qualities are driven by participants who intentionally rated the primes, and that the AMP’s psychometric qualities are driven by participants who were unintentionally influenced by the primes. How can both be true? This pattern suggests that retrospective reports of intent were confabulations meant to explain the behavior subjects had just witnessed themselves perform. Any explanation would do.
In another experiment we tested whether subjects could exert intentional control prospectively, as opposed to simply claiming it after the fact. One group completed an AMP under standard conditions, rating the pictograph on every trial. A second group was given a “pass” option. This group was instructed to evaluate the pictograph as pleasant or unpleasant only when they had an opinion about the pictograph itself rather than the primes. Otherwise they were to skip the trial. To the extent that subjects knew when they were being influenced by the primes and had control over their responses, the option to pass should eliminate the effects of the primes. In reality, though, priming was just as strong when subjects had the option to pass as when they were required to answer.
Together, these studies suggest that priming in the AMP is difficult to control and yet, subjects who are influenced most strongly by the primes sometimes claim that they rated the primes intentionally. Implicit social cognition sometimes puts everyone in difficult positions as they struggle to understand and control automatic influences on their behavior. We can understand, then, why people sometimes behave in ways counter to their intentions. We can be understanding, too, if they sometimes claim that they totally meant to do that.
B. Keith Payne is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He studies unconscious and unintended influences on thought and behavior. Keith Payne is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Jazmin Brown-Iannuzzi is a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. She is broadly interested in status and discrimination, particularly how goals may lead to discriminatory behaviors. She is broadly interested in status and discrimination, particularly how goals may lead to discriminatory behaviors.
Melissa Burkley holds a Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is currently an Associate Professor at Oklahoma State University. Her research focuses on gender and racial stereotypes and she has published on these topics in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Her research has also been featured in several media outlets, including Cosmopolitan, Men’s Health, and Oprah radio, and she currently writes a blog for Psychology Today entitled “The Social Thinker.”
Nathan L. Arbuckle, Ph.D., is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. His primary research focuses on understanding the conditions under which people will look beyond their own needs and demonstrate concern for others. He has studied this in a number of different domains, including the areas of psychopathy, neuroscience, and musical reactivity.
Erin Cooley is a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research explores implicit and explicit social cognition about groups of people, intergroup processes more generally, and positive emotions in the context of interracial interactions. Her research explores implicit and explicit social cognition about groups of people, intergroup processes more generally.
Daryl Cameron is an Assistant Professor of social psychology at the University of Iowa. His research focuses on causes and consequences of compassion, and how automatic affective reactions inform moral decisions and behaviors. His research focuses on causes and consequences of compassion, and how automatic affective reactions inform moral decisions and behaviors.
Kristjen B. Lundberg is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research explores how implicit social cognition can help us understand and predict political judgments and behavior. Specific research interests include the predictive validity of implicit measures in the political arena; how racial prejudice may be influencing political opinions and behavior during the Obama administration; and how implicit cognitive and affective processes shape the divergent beliefs of liberals and conservatives.
Bar-Anan, Y., & Nosek, B. A. (2012). Reporting intentional rating of the primes predicts priming effects in the affective misattribution procedure. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38, 1194-1208.
Bem, D. J. (1967). Self-perception: An alternative interpretation of cognitive dissonance phenomena. Psychological review, 74, 183.
Cameron, C. D., Brown-Iannuzzi, J. L., & Payne, B. K. (2012). Sequential priming measures of implicit social cognition: A meta-analysis of associations with behavior and explicit attitudes. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 4, 330-350.
Payne, B. K., Cheng, C. M., Govorun, O., & Stewart, B. (2005). An inkblot for attitudes: Affect misattribution as implicit measurement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 277-293.
Payne, B. K., Brown-Iannuzzi, J. L., Burkley, M., Arbuckle, N. L., Cooley, E., Cameron, C. D., & Lundberg, K. B. (2013). Intention Invention and the Affect Misattribution Procedure: Reply to Bar-Anan and Nosek (2012). Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 375-86.
Wegner, D. M. (2002). The illusion of conscious will. MIT press.
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