Incidental Stimulus Exposure Effects

A fundamental tenet of social psychology is that situational factors strongly affect behavior. Despite recent controversies related to some specific effects, we remain interested in the power of priming, or incidental stimulus exposure, to demonstrate this basic premise. We have studied priming effects in numerous domains, including studies showing that exposure to alcohol-related images or words can elicit behaviors often associated with alcohol consumption, such as aggression and general disinhibition.

Based on the idea that exposure to stimuli increases accessibility of relevant mental content (Higgins, 2011), we reasoned that seeing alcohol-related stimuli might not only bring to mind thoughts linked in memory with alcohol, but also might instigate behaviors that often result from alcohol consumption. As an initial test of this idea, in the guise of a study on advertising effectiveness we randomly assigned participants to view magazine ads for alcoholic beverages or for other grocery items and asked them to rate the ads on various dimensions. Next, we asked participants if they would help us pilot test material for a future study on impression formation by reading a paragraph describing a person and rating him on various traits, including hostility. We reasoned that the common association between alcohol and aggression might lead to a sort of hostile perception bias when evaluating this individual. As predicted, participants who had seen ads for alcohol rated the individual as more hostile than did participants who had seen ads for other products, and this effect was larger among people who had endorsed (weeks previously) the notion that alcohol increases aggression (Bartholow & Heinz, 2006). Subsequently, this finding has been extended to participants’ own aggression in verbal (Friedman et al., 2007) and physical domains (Pedersen et al., 2014), and has been replicated in other labs (e.g., Bègue et al., 2009; Subra et al., 2010).

Of course, aggression is not the only behavior commonly assumed to increase with alcohol. Hence, we have tested whether this basic phenomenon extends into other behavioral domains, and found similar effects with social disinhibition (Freeman et al., 2010), tension-reduction (Friedman et al., 2007), race bias (Stepanova et al., 2012, 2018a, 2018b), and risky decision-making (Carter et al., in prep.). Additionally, it could be that participants are savvy enough to recognize the hypotheses in studies of this kind when alcohol-related stimuli are presented overtly (i.e., experimental demand). Thus, we have also tested the generality of the effect by varying alcohol cue exposure procedures, including the use of so-called “sub-optimal” exposures (i.e., when prime stimuli are presented too quickly to be consciously recognized). Here again, similar effects have emerged (e.g., Friedman et al., 2007; Loersch & Bartholow, 2011; Pedersen et al., 2014).

Taken together, these findings highlight the power of situational cues to affect behavior in theoretically meaningful ways. On a practical level, they point to the conclusion that alcohol can affect social behavior even when it is not consumed, suggesting, ironically, that even nondrinkers can experience its effects.