Campus News in Brief

CMU researchers begin to understand the nature of unconscious priming

Recently, Carnegie Mellon researchers in the department of psychology used a sensory integration model to better understand how the brain contextualizes what it sees and senses, a process called priming. Scientists have been frustrated by priming for years as they try to understand how it functions.

Professor of psychology Roberta Klatzky, and assistant professor of psychology J. David Creswell published a study in Perspectives on Psychological Science using a well-established human perception theory to explain how and why priming works, and why it can be such an unpredictable process. Klatzky and Creswell adapted an existing model of inter-sensory perception to describe how the multiple senses contribute to the brain’s overarching impression of the world around it.

“We began to think about social priming as just another way that our senses interact,” said Klatzky in a university press release.

“Our approach is to understand how the basic processes work, in order to account for the inconsistencies,” Klatzky said in the press release.

“Because, as scientists, once you understand the underlying causes, you are gifted with control over when effects occur and when they don’t,” she continued.

Klatzky and Cresswell’s model posits that each sense gathers information through a separate channel.

This information is then collated in the brain, and the results of each sense are combined to give the perceptual truth.

When someone stirs a mug of coffee with a metal spoon, for example, and hears the spoon clank on the cup, they can deduce that the mug is made of a hard material.

CMU and Georgetown researchers find new results about mandatory disclosure

Advisers — like doctors, lawyers, and accountants — face conflicts of interest (COIs) when they have a personal stake in the matter on which they are advising. Typically, COI disclosure is mandatory in order to protect consumers from biased advice. Past studies have shown, however, that even mandatory disclosure does not protect consumers from biased advice.

New research from Carnegie Mellon Herbert A. Simon Professor of Economics and Psychology George Loewenstein and Georgetown University assistant professor of business ethics Sunita Sah looks at situations in which advisers can choose whether or not they have COIs, such as doctors who are offered gifts from pharmaceutical companies. Loewenstein and Sah’s work, published in Psychological Science, found that, although the results of previous studies hold, when advisers have a choice about COIs, mandatory disclosure convinces them to choose against the COI so that they have nothing to disclose.

“Prior research has cast doubt as to the effectiveness of disclosure for managing conflicts of interest, particularly when consumers have the burden of interpreting and reacting to the information,” said Sah, lead author of the study, in a university press release. “Our findings suggest that disclosure can become a successful intervention to managing some conflicts of interest if it motivates professionals or providers to avoid such conflicts.”

“Disclosure doesn’t seem to be much good when conflicts are unavoidable, but it does seem to help when advisers have a choice about whether to subject themselves to conflicts,” said Loewenstein in the press release. “A nice feature of disclosure is that it is, in effect, ‘self-calibrating.’ Doctors, for example, are unlikely to find it worth it to accept small gifts such as pens or calendars if the gifts are going to be disclosed. Although larger gifts would be more tempting, doctors are likely to be deterred from accepting them because disclosure of large gifts would be more damaging to their reputations.”