From student to superhero: Situational primes shape future helping

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    future behavior. 2004 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

    behavior. These investigations have focused both onley, 2002; Macrae & Johnston, 1998).1


    q The authors thank Kevin Carlsmith, Robyn Leboeuf, BenotMonin, and Sam Sommers for their helpful comments on an earlierversion of the manuscript.

    * Corresponding author.E-mail address: (L.D. Nelson).

    1 We note that Darley and Batson (1973) used another classichelpful exemplarthe Good Samaritanand failed to nd signicanteects. Because participants in this experiment were also exposed totwo unhelpful exemplars (the priest and the Levite), it should perhapsnot be a surprise that this manipulation was not entirely successful.

    Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 41 (2005) 4234300022-1031/$ - see front matter 2004 Elsevier Inc. All rights reservedthe stable individual dierences that reect altruistic mo-tives and the subtle situational factors that can impacthelping, reective of a dichotomy in the broader eortof psychologists to document the determinants of hu-man behavior. Although research has suggested thatbehavior reects the conscious workings of a complexpsychological system (e.g., Ajzen, 1991; Carver & Sche-ier, 1998), a growing subset of ndings has indicated

    Early research on helping focused on the ways inwhich modest manipulations could lead to dramaticchanges in behavior. Darley and Batson (1973), forexample, showed that merely telling people that theywere running late reduced the likelihood that they wouldstop to help someone slumped in a doorway. Macraeand Johnston (1998) showed that an even more subtlemanipulation could impact helping behavior, as par-ticipants primed with helping-related words wereLike. . .Superman you will come to save me. . .-Aimee Mann Save Me

    Psychologists have exhaustively researched factorsthat promote and inhibit altruism, with two primarygoals: Understanding the processes which underlie help-ing, and developing strategies for increasing helping

    that subtle priming techniques can cause behavior with-out conscious regulation. Such primes have been shownto impact an increasingly diverse set of behaviors, fromintellectual performance (Dijksterhuis & van Knippen-berg, 1998), conformity (Epley & Gilovich, 1999), andwalking speed (Bargh, Chen, & Burrows, 1996) to onemost relevant to the present investigation, spontaneoushelping behavior (Garcia, Weaver, Moskowitz, & Dar-From student to superhero: Situa

    Leif D. Nelsona,*,a Stern School of Business, New York University

    b Sloan School of Management, Ma

    Received 16 SeptemberAvailable onlin


    The present research uses priming techniques to modify commcontrol condition, people primed with the exemplar Supermanprimed with the category superhero saw themselves as more likthese eects to real-world planned helping behavior, by demonsism. Finally, Study 3 showed that these changes in initial cominitial exposure. These results demonstrate that eeting situatdoi:10.1016/j.jesp.2004.08.003nal primes shape future helpingq

    ichael I. Nortonb

    est Fourth Street, New York, NY 10012, USA

    setts Institute of Technology, USA

    ; revised 16 June 2004ovember 2004

    ent to and engagement in future helping behavior. Relative to athemselves as less likely (Studies 1a and 1b), and participantsStudy 1a), to help in hypothetical situations. Study 2 extendedg that these primes impacted commitment to future volunteer-ent impacted volunteering behavior up to three months afterprimes can impact not only spontaneous behavior, but also

  • behavior.

    erimesubsequently more likely to help someone pick upspilled pens. While this line of research has focused onthe ease with which such spontaneous helping behaviorcan be manipulated, a parallel line of research has exam-ined a dierent type of helping behaviorplanned, orlong-term, helping behaviorwith often very dierentdeterminants. We chose volunteerism as our instantia-tion of this kind of helping behavior, a form of helpingthat has received increased attention in recent years (seePutnam, 2000; Wilson, 2000). Volunteering, unlike thespontaneous helping behaviors examined in many inves-tigations, may require a great deal of time and eort(Omoto & Snyder, 1995). The act of volunteering, more-over, has consequences for long-term behavior: a split-second decision to volunteer may lead to weeks, months,or even years of commitment. Research on volunteeringhas shown a relative insensitivity to situational inu-ences: Because the decision to volunteer involves com-mitment beyond the immediate future, volunteeringhas been shown to be best predicted by more stable fac-tors, such as individual dierences in prosocial orienta-tion (e.g., Penner & Finkelstein, 1998), and, as is thecase with many behaviors, prospective volunteers ownpast behavior (e.g., Piliavin & Callero, 1991). Thesetwo stable factors, individual dierences and past behav-ior, are by their very denition situationally inalterable.Given these constraints, one possible inference is thatthe subliminal priming procedures shown to inuencemany types of spontaneous behavior would be unlikelyto impact behaviors that are predicted by more stablefactors, like volunteering.

    Though research on volunteerism suggests that situa-tional factors should have little eect, some ndings indi-cate that even stable dispositions can be impacted bypriming manipulations. In a prisoners dilemma para-digm, for example, individuals primed with competitive-ness were more likely to compete, but only if they hadalready shown a predisposition towards competing(Neuberg, 1988). More recent work has further suggestedthat pro-social and pro-self dispositions are further mod-erated by individual self-consistency (Smeesters, Warlop,Van Avermaet, Corneille, & Yzerbyt, 2003). Unlike thenon-competitive response in a prisoners dilemma situa-tion, volunteeringdue to its positive connotationsmay be a domain towards which individuals generallymight consider themselves disposed: The vast majorityof people, for example, see themselves as more likelythan the average person to donate blood (Allison, Mes-sick, & Goethals, 1989). Primes that activate helpingconstructs, therefore, may have the potential to inuencebehaviors that are generally seen as resistant to the im-pact of eeting situational forces.

    Echoing the behavioral priming research cited above,we used a category and exemplar prime paradigm (e.g.,Dijksterhuis et al., 1998) to prime helpfulness, selecting

    424 L.D. Nelson, M.I. Norton / Journal of Expthe category superheroes and the exemplar Super-Overview

    In a series of studies, we used situational primes de-signed to elicit increased or decreased helping behavior.Participants were primed to think about a helpful cate-gory (e.g., superheroes), or an exemplar member of thatcategory (e.g., Superman). We had three primary goalsin the studies reported below. First, we wanted to dem-onstrate that situational primes can both make peoplethink of themselves as more helpful and cause them topredict more helpful behavior in the future (Studies 1aand 1b). Second, we wanted to show that these primescould move beyond impacting spontaneous behaviorsand make people more likely to volunteer for a realcommunity service group (Study 2). Our third and mostimportant goal was to show that such commitment tovolunteering, even when induced through priming,would lead to increased volunteering behavior in the fu-ture, many months after initial exposure (Study 3).Moreover, because we apply the exemplar/category par-adigm in our attention to helping behavior, some of thestudies specically compare neutral controls with Super-man and/or superhero primes (Studies 1a and 1b, andStudy 2), while others compare Superman to superheroprimes (Study 1a and Study 3). Though the quote withwhich we opened this paper illustrates Manns faith thatmanboth highly altruistic constructsas our targetstimuli. Previous research has shown that individualscompare themselves to the standards set by such socialstimuli (e.g., Festinger, 1954; Mussweiler, 2003). Typi-cally, these comparison processes result in assimilationin both judgments and behavior (e.g., Bargh et al.,1996; Dijksterhuis & Bargh, 2001; Dijksterhuis & vanKnippenberg, 1998; Kawakami, Dovidio, & Dijkster-huis, 2003), in part because when making comparisons,people rst focus on shared features (e.g., Srull & Gae-lick, 1983), a focus which frequently leads to assimila-tion due to activation of this information (Mussweiler,2003). Although people default to similarity testingand the assimilation that resultspeople do engage indissimilarity testing as well (Mussweiler, 2003). This lesscommon comparison is more likely to occur when com-parisons are made with extreme, unambiguous stan-dards (e.g., Dijksterhuis et al., 1998; Herr, 1986; Herr,Sherman, & Fazio, 1983; LeBoeuf & Estes, in press;Lockwood & Kunda, 1997; Stapel, Koomen, & vander Plight, 1997), precisely the kind of standard that asuperhuman target such as Superman represents. Thus,we predicted that people would contrast from helpfulexemplar primes (Superman), but assimilate to helpfulcategory primes (superheroes) in judgments of them-selves, predictions of their behavior, and their actual

    ntal Social Psychology 41 (2005) 423430people like Supermanthe most helpful exemplar the

  • similar in format but asked questions that were notexplicitly related to the primed constructs. These ques-

    pleted this page, they continued to work through thepacket until nished, at which point they were probed

    erimental Social Psychology 41 (2005) 423430 425tions were intended to be either self-enhancing, butnot directly related to the prime (e.g., likelihood of win-ning an essay contest), or unrelated (e.g., likelihood ofchoosing pizza or Chinese food for dinner), and usedauthors could generatewill behave altruistically, wepredict that participants primed with this construct willhelp less than the average person, while those primedwith superheroes will help more.

    Study 1a


    Fifty-six Princeton undergraduates participated inthe experiment as partial fulllment of a course require-ment, were recruited via electronic mail and telephone,and were scheduled in groups of three to participate inthe experiment. Participants were seated in three sepa-rate quiet rooms, and completed large questionnairepackets containing the manipulation and dependentmeasures. Participants were told to answer every ques-tion and to complete the questionnaire in order, withoutreturning to previous pages.

    Participants rst answered a brief set of demograph-ics questions, then completed the priming manipulation.Analogous to the procedures used in other research(Dijksterhuis & van Knippenberg, 1998; Dijksterhuiset al., 1998), participants in the superhero (Superman)condition were asked the following: For this task wewould like you to describe the characteristics of a super-hero (Superman). Think of a superhero (Superman) andlist the behaviors, values, lifestyle, and appearance asso-ciated with these characters (this character). Partici-pants in the control condition were given nearlyidentical instructions, but were asked to describe a dormroom. Following the priming procedure, participantscompleted the (purportedly unrelated) dependent mea-sure, which asked participants to evaluate their behaviorin a series of scenarios. The critical measure of plannedhelping behavior was, An elderly woman gets on acrowded subway on which you are riding. Althoughall the seats are taken and many people are standing,you have a seat. Relative to the average Princeton stu-dent how likely is it that you would oer your seat tothis woman? (1: much less likely, 8: same, 15: muchmore likely). We used the relative to average measurefor two reasons. First, it provides a reference point thatis modestly meaningful for participants. Moreover, thecomparison to a typical Princeton student provides thebest test of our hypothesisthis was the one group thatall participants belonged to and felt fairly knowledge-able about. The remaining questions on the page were

    L.D. Nelson, M.I. Norton / Journal of Expthe same scale as above. When participants had com-for suspicion and debriefed.

    Results and discussion

    In debrieng, one participant expressed suspicionabout the unrelatedness of the various tasks; though un-able to identify the hypothesis, we excluded this partici-pants data from further analysis.

    As predicted, participants primed with superhero re-ported being most likely to help (M = 11.32), followedby participants in the control (M = 9.93) and Superman(M = 8.95) conditions. The omnibus ANOVA was sig-nicant, F (2,54) = 6.93, p = .002, as was the predictedlinear contrast, F (1,54) = 13.76, p < .001. These prim-ing eects were limited only to prime-specic behaviors;as expected, none of the alternative measures (of bothself-enhancing and irrelevant behaviors) were aectedby the priming manipulation (Fs < 1).

    To ensure that our manipulations were successful wehad an independent coder, blind to condition, identifythe Superman-specic features (e.g., kryptonite, phonebooth, etc.) listed by each participant. Consistent withour predictions, participants reported more of these fea-tures when primed with Superman (M = 1.1) than whenprimed with superhero (M = .04) or dorm room(M = .00), F (2,63) = 14.54, p < .001. Most importantlyfor rejecting alternative hypotheses about the manipula-tions, there was a reliable dierence between the Super-man and superhero conditions specically, t (43) = 3.78,p < .001.

    Given that the two experimental conditions criticallydiered, we also wanted to show that dierences in thedependent variable did not occur as the result of partic-ipants general approach to the original feature-listingtask. We further analyzed the content of the feature list-ings in order to show that our primes generated the pre-dicted types of thoughts. Two independent coders, blindto condition, rated the overall valence of each feature(positive, negative, or neutral), and whether a listed fea-ture was related to helping behavior or not.2 There wasan acceptable 85.2% agreement rate; a second pair ofcoders resolved any dierences between the ratings.We computed an overall score for the valence of thelisted features by computing the dierence between thenumber of positive features listed and the number ofnegative features listed. Not surprisingly, features listedby participants primed with Superman (M = 6.6) andsuperhero (M = 7.4) were signicantly more positivethan the features listed by participants in the controlcondition (M = .87), F (2,54) = 116.4, p < .001. Most

    2 Typical positive features: strong, handsome, and honest. Typicalnegative features: arrogant, secretive, and violent. Neutral terms were

    typically non-valenced descriptors: male, big, and white.

  • from the category prime, and judged themselves as more

    bound). Those phrases, followed by look up in the sky-its Superman were originally associated with Super-

    erimehelpful, while other participants contrasted with theexemplar prime, and judged themselves to be less help-ful. Study 1a also revealed that the impact of our primeswas specically limited to predictions of future helpingbehavior, and did not apply more generally to other po-sitive behaviors.

    Study 1b


    Having demonstrated the eect, we next wanted toreplicate the eect with subtler priming, in this case asentence-unscrambling task similar to that used in previ-ous priming studies (e.g., Macrae & Johnston, 1998),and show similar eects on predicted helping behaviorin a dierent situation. We again chose to use the exem-plar Superman (because of the nature of the procedure,we were unable to replicate the category prime condi-tion). As in the rst study, our primary dependent vari-able assessed participants predictions of their behaviorin a hypothetical helping situation. We predicted thatparticipants primed with the Superman exemplar wouldpredict that they would be less helpful than participantsin a control condition.

    Thirty undergraduates enrolled in introductory psy-chology participated in the experiment as part of a class-room exercise. Participants rst completed a scrambledsentence task, unscrambling 10 sentences. In the controlcondition, the 10 phrases were all common aphorismsimportantly, there was no signicant dierence in fea-ture valence between participants in the two experimen-tal conditions, t (38) = 1.23, p > .20. In addition, whileparticipants primed with Superman and superhero(Ms = .79 and .67 respectively) listed more helping-re-lated features than did participants in the control condi-tion (where no helping features were listed, of course),F (2,54) = 7.72, p = .001, there were again no dierencesbetween the superhero and Superman conditions, t < 1.The two experimental conditions, then, did not dier innumber of helping-related words listed, but both dieredsubstantially from the control condition. In addition,there were also no signicant relationships between thetypes of thoughts listed and the primary dependent mea-sure, all ps > .20. The fact that predictions of helpingdiered so markedly between the two experimental con-ditions despite the construct being similarly activatedsuggests that it is specically the dierent nature of so-cial comparison the two primes elicitsimilarity testingfor superheroes and dissimilarity testing for Superman(Mussweiler, 2003) that caused dierences in predictedhelping behavior.

    In this study, participants assimilated information

    426 L.D. Nelson, M.I. Norton / Journal of Exp(e.g., cross that bridge when we come to it, a penny forman as part of the introduction to the television seriesThe Adventures of Superman, airing rst in 1953, a linksubsequently bolstered by the many Superman comics,movies, and related television programs that followed.We thus expected the prime to activate the Supermanexemplar rather than activating a more general super-hero category. Participants next read a description of apotential helping situation (an old man lying in anentranceway), and were then asked how likely theywould be to help the man, relative to the average Prince-ton student (5 = much less likely to 5 = much morelikely).

    Results and discussion

    As predicted, participants primed with Superman re-ported being less likely to help than participants in thecontrol condition (Ms = .08 vs. 1.35), t (27) = 1.90,p = .034, one-tailed. Consistent with the results of Study1a, this nding provides further evidence that subtleprimes can impact predictions about future behavior.

    While Studies 1a and 1b showed that primes im-pacted participants estimates of future altruism, themost valuable extension of this research would be toshow that a similar manipulation could be used tochange real-world behavior. The next two studies aimto demonstrate that the eects of superhero primescould be extended both to commitment to and perfor-mance of actual future helping behavior. Exploring theimpact of primes on planned helping behavior allowsus to move beyond simply assessing participants predic-tions of future behavior, to using these altered predic-tions to assess their willingness to commitin thepresentto those future behaviors, and then measuretheir follow-through on that initial commitment. To ex-plore these issues, in Study 2 participants were primedusing a procedure similar to that of Study 1a, and weregiven an opportunity to volunteer for a real campuscommunity service group. In Study 3, participants wereasked to attend a volunteering meeting some threemonths after the initial priming episode.

    Study 2


    Forty-nine Princeton undergraduates enrolled in anyour thoughts, and birds of a feather ock together).For participants in the Superman condition, three aph-orisms were replaced with scrambled phrases associatedwith Superman (faster than a speeding bullet, more pow-erful than a locomotive, and leaps tall buildings in a single

    ntal Social Psychology 41 (2005) 423430introductory psychology class participated as part of a

  • ported in Study 2 and extend those ndings by demon-strating an impact on actual future behavior. Using a

    erimeclassroom exercise. We used the same thought-listingtask as in Study 1a: Participants were randomly assignedto one of two conditions and given 4 min to list featuresof a superhero or a student dorm room. After collectingthese materials, the instructor introduced a confederateposing as a representative of Community House, whogave a brief (30 s) summary of the organization, an ac-tual campus organization that arranges to have Prince-ton students tutor children in neighboringcommunities. The representative made it clear that stu-dents who signed up would be contacted to volunteerin the near future. Participants were then given the orga-nizations standard form, modied to include our pri-mary dependent measure assessing the number ofhours per week participants were willing to volunteer.

    Results and discussion

    As predicted, participants who had been primed withthe category superhero volunteered more than twice asmany hours (M = 2.13 h/week) as participants in thecontrol condition (M = .94 h/week). The distributionwas highly skewed due to the large number of partici-pants who volunteered zero hours (skewness = 1.94),so we conducted a square-root transformation of hoursvolunteered, resulting in a less skewed distribution(skewness = .47), and a reliable dierence between con-ditions, t (47) = 2.09, p = .043. A secondary measurewas the frequency of volunteerism, and although a high-er percentage volunteered in the superhero condition (15of 23, 65%) than in the control condition (12 of 26,48%), this eect was not statistically reliable,v2 (1,N = 49) = 1.79, p = .18.

    In parallel to our ndings with predicted behavior inStudies 1a and 1b, we showed that the same primescould aect actual commitment to real-world volunteer-ism: Participants primed with superhero volunteeredtwice as much time as did controls. While Macrae andJohnston (1998) showed that primes could aect behav-ior in spontaneous helping situation, the present resultsprovide evidence for priming eects on planned helpingbehavior as well. In our study, primed participantsshowed an increase in a prosocial behavior implicatinga long-term impact outside of the laboratory. This isnot to say that we predict the prime itself will still havea direct inuence on behavior long after the manipula-tion, but as discussed above, the act of initial volunteer-ing can have important consequences. The act ofvolunteering carries the psychological gravity of beingperceived as an action itself, a self-perception that haspowerful inuences on future behavior (Albarracn &Wyer, 2000). According to Albarracn and Wyer(2000), past behavior operates directly on individualsattitudes, and thus their behavioral intentions and sub-sequent behavior. In the studies we have thus far re-

    L.D. Nelson, M.I. Norton / Journal of Expported we have shown that primes can signicantlysimilar design, participants completed the primingmanipulation and a seemingly unrelated questionnairesoliciting volunteers for a campus community servicegroup. Participants that volunteered for the ctitiousgroup were contacted three months later and asked toattend an organizational meeting for the group. Fre-quency of attendance at this meeting was the criticaldependent variable in the experiment.


    One hundred twelve Princeton undergraduates com-pleted the experimental materials, which were embeddedin a larger packet of unrelated questionnaire, and werepaid $8. Participants rst completed the priming task,which asked them to list 10 features that described eithera superhero or Superman. Because the previous studieshad established that the control condition fell betweenthe two experimental conditions, we omitted a controlcondition in Study 3. On the following page, partici-pants read about Princeton Community Tutoring. Thegroup was described as a new student-run organiza-tion, intended to assist undergraduates who are inter-ested in helping to tutor high-school students in theimpact intentions. We now hope to show that it can im-pact the long-term behaviors in which participants claimthey will engage. Our Studies 1a and 1b show that par-ticipants see themselves as more likely to help in a futurehypothetical situation, demonstrating a general inten-tion to be more helpful, but hardly a concrete intentionto engage in future behavior. Indeed, most theories ofbehavioral prediction (e.g., Ajzen, 1991) suggest thatsuch weak intentions do not predict behavior. In addi-tion, given the multitude of other inuences in daily life,we might be surprised if a single priming episode im-pacts behavior weeks laterunless, as in the presentinvestigation, people are committed to the new behav-ioral intention when the prime is still active. Our Study2, unlike Studies 1a and 1b, committed participants to aspecic form of future helping. Such commitments canhave strong eects on future behavior, as Freedmanand Frasers (1966) classic foot-in-the-door researchdemonstrated. In one investigation, the eects of simplecommitment to volunteering persisted for six weeks(Cio & Garner, 1996). In Study 3, we follow throughon participants initial commitment, to see if our primesinuence not only intentions to engage in future behav-ior, but actual future behavior.

    Study 3

    In the nal study, we sought to replicate the eects re-

    ntal Social Psychology 41 (2005) 423430 427greater Princeton area. The questionnaire, which was

  • primed with superhero were more likely to show up toparticipate in the group (17%, 9 of 52) than were peoplethat had been primed with Superman (4%, 2 of 56),v2 (1,N = 108) = 5.56, p = .018.3 Even after a 90-day de-lay, people that were primed with superhero were fourtimes more likely to volunteer than were those whohad been primed with Superman.

    General discussion

    Using a novel construct, we were able to demonstrate

    this analysis because the e-mail address they provided was eitherunreadable or unreported. Three of these participants were in the

    erimental Social Psychology 41 (2005) 423430administered during the Fall semester, further informedparticipants that if they were interested in volunteeringthey should report their electronic mail addresses andthat they would be contacted sometime in the Springsemester. Participants also reported the approximatenumber of hours per week they would like to volunteerin support of the organization.

    Approximately 90 days after completing the ques-tionnaire, in the Spring semester, those students whohad volunteered were sent an email informing them thatthere would be an informational meeting held in the fol-lowing week signifying the start of their participation inthe program, and that there were three times available toattend. At the meetings, after attendance had been re-corded, participants were probed for suspicion, thor-oughly debriefed, and provided with informationabout other volunteer organizations on campus, includ-ing Community House. We predicted that participantsprimed with superhero, in contrast to those primed withSuperman, would be more likely to volunteer and wouldvolunteer more hours at the initial session, and as a re-sult of this commitment would be more likely to attendthe group meeting three months after original exposureto the prime.

    Results and discussion

    Initial eect of prime

    We rst investigated the impact of the prime on volun-teering behavior immediately following exposure. Con-sistent with the ndings of Study 2 we found thatparticipants volunteered more hours of service whenprimed with superhero (M = .98 h/week) than whenprimed with Superman (M = .46 h/week). Once againthe distribution was skewed (skewness = 3.28), so weconducted a square-root transformation which produceda more normal distribution (skewness = 1.36), and areliable dierence between conditions, t (105) = 2.41,p = .018. We also analyzed the frequency of volunteer-ism as a function of priming condition, predicting thatpeople would be more likely to volunteer when primedwith superhero than when primed with Superman. Aspredicted, people were more likely to volunteer whenprimed with superhero (42%, 23 of 55) than when primedwith Superman (23%, 13 of 57), v2 (1,N = 112) = 4.64,p = .031.

    Long-term eect of prime

    Ninety days after initial exposure to the prime, partic-ipants who had volunteered for the group were con-tacted by e-mail and asked to come to the rstmeeting of the organization. We expected that commit-ting themselves to the group in the rst experimentalphase would increase the likelihood that participantswould participate in the group at a later date. Consistent

    428 L.D. Nelson, M.I. Norton / Journal of Expwith our predictions, of the original sample, participantssuperhero condition, so if anything, their exclusion operated againstour hypothesis.

    4 The novelty of the target may be potentially as much of ahindrance as it is a help. As Wells and Windshitl (1999) point out, theuse of a single stimulus type (superheroes and Superman in this case)makes these results potentially sensitive to variance within the stimuluscategory. We are nevertheless fairly condent in our eects as thepriming-behavior literature has slowly expanded to include a numberof dierent stimuli, with superheroes a reasonable, if perhaps atypical,that primes can inuence predictions of, commitment to,and engagement in future helping behavior.4 Exposureto primes aected how people evaluated their futurealtruistic tendencies (Studies 1a and 1b), led them tocommit to helping behaviors in the future (Study 2),and as a consequence of that commitment, led them tofollow through on this behavior three months after theinitial priming episode (Study 3). We also demonstratedthe specicity of the eects of our primes, which im-pacted only helping behavior, and not other kinds of po-sitive behaviors (Study 1a).

    Why does priming impact future behavior?

    We began this paper by outlining a dichotomy be-tween spontaneous and more deliberative helpingbehavior, such as volunteering. Although a large bodyof research has shown that spontaneous helping can beeasily inuenced (e.g., Darley & Batson, 1973; Macrae& Johnston, 1998), most research suggests that volun-teerismand more deliberative, long-term helping ingeneralis more dicult to impact. Many theoristshave hypothesized that volunteerism is predicted by sta-ble aspects of individuals, primarily their predispositionsand chronic goals to help (e.g., Clary et al., 1998); weshould thus not be surprised that such behavior isthought to be more dicult to inuence. We suggestthat the distinction between chronic goals impactingplanned behavior and eeting situational factors (suchas primes) impacting spontaneous behaviors, while use-ful, may be less dichotomous than previously thought.

    3 The data from four volunteering participants were excluded frommember of this set.

  • inition (Markus & Nurius, 1986)a crucial factor in

    theless, the present research contributes to the larger

    erimental Social Psychology 41 (2005) 423430 429There is increasing evidence to suggest that priming ef-fects are hardly eeting. Some research on the impactof primes has revealed eects as long as 24 h after expo-sure (Merikle & Daneman, 1998), or up to two weeks la-ter when stimuli are particularly strong (Sohlberg &Birgegard, 2003). In the paradigm under investigationin this paper, we hypothesize that the observed long-term eects are not a delayed direct priming eect, butrather the inuence of a more direct psychological medi-ator: Participants initial commitment at the originalpriming episode.

    One possible mechanism by which primes might im-pact commitment intentions is through the inuence ofgoals. One theory of the impact of primes on spontane-ous behavior suggests that primes aect behavior bymodifying the accessibility of relevant goals which thenguide behavior (e.g., Bargh, Gollwitzer, Lee-Chai, Barn-dollar, & Trotschel, 2001). Such goals are explicitly sit-uational, however, and little attention has beendevoted to how primed goals might impact behavioroutside the testing situation (though see Gollwitzer,1999). Indeed, common sense tells us that a single prim-ing episode would be hard-pressed to impact behaviorsdays after an experiment, given the multitude of unre-lated goals individuals pursue on a daily basis. Never-theless, within the experimental situation, primingmethods have the capacity to bypass the deliberativephase of behavior choice (Gollwitzer, 1990), shapingintentions and goals without awareness.

    By using priming techniques to bypass peoples stablealtruistic proclivities, and committing them to futurebehavior while these temporary goals were salient, wewere able to commit them to future behavior usuallythought to be impervious to such inuences. Indeed,much of the research demonstrating relationships be-tween chronic altruistic goals and volunteering is corre-lational, so while it is possible that altruistic goals leadto volunteering, this prior research does not precludethe possibility that people rst volunteer, then developgoals in line with that behavior. The present investiga-tion, in suggesting that subtle situational manipulationsmay change temporary goals, and thus commitment tobehaviors traditionally seen as motivated by chronicgoals, disambiguates these correlational studies by dem-onstrating that manipulated goals change personalintentions, and causally lead to chronic behavior.

    Goal-directed behavior and role models

    Few investigations have examined long-term eectsof behavioral priming research, but work on the eectsof role models (often exemplars of a given category)has arrived at similar conclusions. Role models havebeen shown to be a central means for guiding peoplesbehavior. Some research has suggested that role models

    L.D. Nelson, M.I. Norton / Journal of Explead to greater inspiration, and thus presumably to bet-argument about unconscious intent by demonstratinghow a modest manipulation can impact social behaviorbeyond the immediate context.


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    On rst blush the fact that simple primes can impactbehavior three months after the fact conicts with a viewof behavior as resulting from conscious deliberation andintention. Not only can spontaneous, laboratory-in-duced behaviors be elicited without mindful processing,but behavior far removed from the laboratory settingcan be inuenced as well. This is the strong version ofunconscious intent, where actions are caused by uncon-scious mechanisms of mind (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999),and social behavior follows directly from social percep-tion (Dijksterhuis & Bargh, 2001). We are not quite sobold. In eect we nd that primes can impact an extre-mely inuential mediator: Future commitment. Never-ter performance (Lockwood & Kunda, 1997). These re-sults are inconsistent with the results of our Studies 1aand 1b and Dijksterhuis et al. (1998), where positiveexemplars actually lead to less helping. Our own recentwork has investigated this incongruity, and has shownthat though role models may be inspiring, this inspira-tion can be undercut when participants are faced withactual evaluation (Johnson, Chartrand, Norton, & Nel-son, 2004), leading to decreased performance. There areparticularly disturbing implications of such contrast ef-fects when superheroes are used as role models, giventhe fact that superheroes are most often used as rolemodels for children (e.g., White & OBrien, 1999). Chil-dren, however, may have enough malleability in self-def-Trotschel, R. (2001). The automated will: Nonconscious activation

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    From student to superhero: Situational primes shape future helpingOverviewStudy 1aMethodResults and discussion

    Study 1bMethodResults and discussion

    Study 2MethodResults and discussion

    Study 3MethodResults and discussionInitial effect of primeLong-term effect of prime

    General discussionWhy does priming impact future behavior?Goal-directed behavior and role models



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