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  • A human brain subjected to pseudoscience

Do experimental subjects exposed to words suggesting age—Florida, bingo, gray—walk slower? In 1996, psychologists from New York University said they did—and when Malcolm Gladwell recounted the study in his best seller Blink, the “goal-priming” effect “soon became a staple of pop psychology,” the author of an essay in the New York Times wrote yesterday.

The slow-walker study and other goal-priming studies seemed to show “the power of subtle cues to influence our attitudes and actions,” Sally L. Satel, a lecturer in psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, observed in the NYT essay.

Recent attempts to replicate goal-priming studies have found them wanting, however. Primed and unprimed walkers walked at the same rate. Subjects exposed to money at the start of an experiment were not more likely to endorse the free market when the experiment continued, as earlier research had suggested; subjects shown a picture of the American flag were not more likely to express nationalist sentiments.