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Political Psychology, Vol. 27, No.

3, 2006

Experiments on the Automaticity of Political Beliefs

and Attitudes
Inna Burdein
Stony Brook University

Milton Lodge
Stony Brook University

Charles Taber
Stony Brook University

Political science has long relied on explicit responses in order to understand what and how
people think. New research in the cognitive sciences suggests that this reliance on conscious
considerations provides but a partial picture of how citizens think and reason. Given the
limitations of conscious working memory and the growing evidence that much of human
cognition occurs outside of awareness, the defining empirical assumption of modern public
opinion research—that citizens can tell us what is on their minds—seems increasingly
suspect. Moreover, social science is particularly challenged by the sensitivity of their topics,
which in turn raises social and personal desirability concerns about self-report data. In
order to overcome these limitations, we propose an implicit experimental approach. We
contend that implicit measures enable us to measure some of the automatic and affective
responses and predispositions that influence thoughts and behaviors outside of conscious
KEY WORDS: Experimentation, attitudes, political cognition, implicit attitudes, automaticity

The mind is like an iceberg, it floats with one-seventh of its bulk above
Sigmund Freud

In line with Enlightenment views of rationality as the product of conscious

human deliberation and in opposition to Freud’s focus on the unconscious mind,

0162-895X © 2006 International Society of Political Psychology
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360 Burdein et al.

the social sciences commonly presume that the thoughts, feelings, and behavioral
intentions that come into awareness determine the direction and thrust of behavior.
Standard practice for political scientists simply asks people to voice their beliefs,
report their likes and dislikes, recount feelings and past behaviors, and foretell
their intended actions. By contrast with this focus on conscious deliberation,
current theorizing in the cognitive sciences, backed by hundreds of behavioral
studies in social and cognitive psychology and new evidence from neuroscience,
suggests that human thought and behavior are underwritten by automatic and
uncontrolled processes that social scientists are only now beginning to consider
(Bargh, 1997). Buried beneath a citizen’s answer to a survey question, for
example, lie myriad automatic responses to environmental primes, many never
consciously perceived. Moreover, as is already well understood but frequently
ignored, survey responses to socially sensitive questions are subject to conscious
social conformity and self-presentational biases. All of these interactions between
a person and her environment—including question wording and order effects, race
or gender of the interviewer effects, and mood effects—happen automatically
outside of consciousness, on a time scale of milliseconds. In short, our discipline’s
reliance on conscious, introspectively available considerations as mediators of
behavior fails to model correctly how citizens think, reason, and act.

Automatic and Deliberative Processing

Automatic processing stands in sharp contrast to the “deliberate” responses

that survey research (as well as most experimental research) seeks to measure. The
labeling of one mode of processing as deliberative emphasizes the reflective,
consciously controlled character of one’s responses to an “object”—whether
person, place, event, thing, or idea—which generally (but not necessarily) involves
verbal reasoning. Deliberative processes are cognitively effortful, time consuming,
demanding of attention, and often premised on an intentional memory search for
relevant facts and considerations. Conversely, automatic processes—whether the
immediate activation of cognitive or affective associations or such habitual actions
as online processing that operate “mindlessly” (Langer, 1989)—are involuntary,
fast, top of the head, consume few resources, and unlike conscious processes can
be activated even when the individual’s conscious attention is focused elsewhere.
People may be unaware of the specific situational and contextual factors (call them
“primes”) that bring those thoughts, feelings, and intentions to mind that appear to
the actor to be the outcome of a self-conscious, purposive evaluation of the
To call a process “automatic” it must satisfy four criteria (Bargh, 1997): It
must be spontaneous; that is, the process or response must be triggered even if the
individual is not consciously engaged. It must be unconscious; the processes
themselves must occur outside of awareness. The response must be uncontrol-
lable; once triggered, the process runs its course without conscious guidance. And
The Automaticity of Attitudes 361

the process is invoked and carried through while expending little or no cognitive

Methods for Studying Automatic Processes

Given that respondents themselves are not aware of automatic processes, the
question becomes: How can we study thoughts and feelings that are outside of

Postconscious Automaticity

Many researchers have relied on explicit primes to measure automatic pro-

cessing, an approach Bargh (1989) called postconscious automaticity. Under this
type of experimental design, respondents are aware of the stimulus but not of how
their responses have been affected. Consider, for example, someone taking a
telephone survey with the TV news playing in the background. If asked, this
respondent might readily report that the TV was on and (perhaps) that a news story
on terror bombings in Iraq had just aired, but it is very unlikely she would realize
that this contextual factor has influenced her survey responses.
Response Time Latencies in Surveys. Extending a traditional experimental
technique to survey methods, Basilli (1995) measured response times to survey
questions (explicit primes) to gauge the accessibility of the concepts or attitudes
elicited by those questions (automatic activation). The logic here is that the
stronger the link between concepts, or the more accessible a concept is, the quicker
it will come to mind. The survey questions Basilli employed dealt with voting
intentions, leader and party preferences, party identification, and knowledge about
the campaign. In the second phase of the study, Basilli inquired about actual
behavior (i.e., who the respondent ended up voting for, if anyone). He found that
for those people whose political attitudes were highly accessible (i.e., quicker
latency responses), the relationship between their attitudes and behavior was
stronger and more stable.
Huckfeldt, Levine, Morgan, and Sprague (1999) also employed response
latencies to gauge accessibility of perceptions of own and other’s preferences.
They found that some concepts (party identification) were more accessible than
others (ideology). Moreover, for those who were politically involved or knowl-
edgeable, political concepts were more accessible. If we accept that response time
is indicative of accessibility, then we can infer that people with political knowl-
edge have developed stronger links among political concepts, which in turn have
made those associations readily accessible.
While these studies begin to address the automaticity of memory processes,
they still rely on conscious processing. The activation of “Democrat” when asked
about “Party Identification” may be automatic (as exemplified by the “quick”
response time) but it could also be a deliberative process, where a person considers
362 Burdein et al.

the alternatives, thinks back to past experiences, and comes up with an opinion
(perhaps faster than his fellow unsophisticated respondent). The response to
Basilli’s (1995) feeling thermometer for a particular candidate may tap automatic
affect for those who were quicker to respond, but it may also be a “quicker”
deliberative response, where the politically knowledgeable person is able to
assemble an opinion faster than a novice. Because these studies allow people to
freely voice their opinions and preferences, we cannot claim to know what their
actual associations are, what primes (in the questions) they are actually responding
to (i.e., is it the candidate’s name or the party that he belongs to?), and whether
their responses occurred spontaneously.
Implicit Association Test. A more exacting measure of postconscious automa-
ticity is the Implicit Association Test (Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998; see
demonstrations of the IAT at http://www.yale.edu/implicit/). This task requires
respondents to categorize pairs of words, one at a time. For example, the first pair
of words (e.g., cancer, sunshine) may be categorized as either positive or negative.
A second pair of words may consist of stereotypical African American or white
names (e.g., Jamaal, Evan), which will have to be sorted accordingly. Once the
basic categories are established, words are presented that may fit either set of
categories. For example, subjects might be asked to press one key if the target
word is positive or white and another key if the word is negative or black. While
this task may seem easy, when the word associations are crossed, response times
increase significantly (e.g., many white respondents are slow to indicate “sun-
shine” is a positive word when the same key also represents “blacks”). If people
are quicker to sort words for one pairing of categories than another (e.g., “white”
and “positive” faster than “white” and “negative”), we can infer that the faster
pairing indicates associated categories.
Using the IAT, Greenwald and Banaji (1995) found that implicit stereotyping
behaviors often diverge from explicit measures of stereotyping, such as the
Modern Racism Scale. Many people have stronger negative stereotypes than they
explicitly report, a difference that could be due to either a lack of awareness of
their own prejudices or to social conformity pressures that lead subjects to control
their own automatic responses.
The IAT has become one of the most useful tools for eliciting automatic
associations and preferences. However, as Fazio and Olson warn, the “IAT seems
to assess associations to the category labels, not automatically-activated responses
to the individual exemplars” (2003, p. 316). Moreover, respondents may be influ-
enced by the visual familiarity of certain associations from their environments
rather than actual linkages within their own knowledge structures (Karpinski &
Hilston, 2001; but see Dasgupta, McGhee, Greenwald, & Banaji, 2000). A second
limitation of the IAT concerns whether it allows assessment of the accessibility of
individual concepts. By its nature, the IAT produces a measure of the relative
accessibility of paired concepts, but we may sometimes wish to know attitudes
toward single concepts (e.g., liking toward George Bush). Recent analyses of
The Automaticity of Attitudes 363

various methods for disentangling individual attitudes suggest that none are sat-
isfactory and that the IAT may simply be limited to relative measures of paired
concepts (Nosek, Greenwald, & Banaji, 2005). Finally, the IAT becomes less
effective as the number of trials increases, which suggests that perhaps people
become “better” at the task by either forming new associations in WM, or figuring
out ways to “beat” the study (Steffens, 2004). For a careful assessment of several
methodological concerns associated with the IAT, see Nosek et al. (2005).

Preconscious Automaticity

Several of the problems mentioned above may be resolved through the use of
an implicit priming paradigm, which captures preconscious rather than postcon-
scious automaticity (Bargh, 1989).
Lexical Decision Paradigm. An early method developed to trace associations
in LTM was the lexical decision task (Collins & Loftus, 1975; Collins & Quillian,
1969; Neely, 1977). In this task, experimental subjects are presented with word
pairs. The first, or “prime” word is presented briefly on a computer screen (about
200 milliseconds), followed after an interval (the length of which can be varied
experimentally) by a second string of letters. The second string remains onscreen
until the S makes a response, typically by pressing one button “as fast as possible
without making too many errors” if the target is a legal English word, the other
button if it is not. If the prime is associated in the subject’s memory with the target,
it will take less time to say the target is a word (since the target will be “readied”
by activation sent across the link from the prime). For example, a subject primed
with the word “Flower” should be faster to say that the target “rose” is a word than
to say that “gun” is a word.
Note that the subject is never asked directly whether the target is associated
with the prime, whether a rose is a flower (indeed, though this is may not be a truly
subliminal task, the prime is onscreen so briefly that the S may be only dimly
aware of it). These and similar cognitive priming paradigms produce robust
effects: facilitation for cognitively associated concepts; inhibition for unrelated
concepts. What is more, these effects are automatic—they cannot be suppressed or
overridden (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995; Neely, 1977).
Attitude Priming Paradigm. The attitude-priming paradigm developed by
Fazio, Sanbonmatsu, Powell, & Kardes (1986), Bargh, Chaiken, & Raymond
(1996), and Bargh, Chaiken, Govender, & Pratto (1992) has been used to detect
affective associations or predispositions. Ss are exposed to a prime and moments
later to a target word. In this attitudinal variant of the cognitive priming paradigm
described above, the S’s task is to press a button labeled “plus” or “minus” to
indicate “as fast as possible without making too many errors” whether the target
word has a positive or negative connotation. On each trial the name of an attitude
object (e.g., “cockroach”) is presented for 200 ms on a computer screen, followed
by a 100 ms blank-screen interval. A clearly positive or negative target word is then
364 Burdein et al.

Panel a: +
Prime Displayed Target Displayed Button Response
(Positive or Negative)
200 ms 100 ms Reaction Time

Panel b: + Delightful @ 800 ms

"Cockroach" "Delightful" or "Disgusting"
200 ms 100 ms Reaction Time
- Disgusting @ 500 ms

Figure 1. Affective Priming Paradigm.

presented—e.g., “delightful” or “disgusting.” The subject must indicate by a

button press whether the target word is “good” or “bad.” Positive primes should
facilitate positive targets but inhibit negative ones (and vice versa), so this is a
useful way to measure whether the automatic affective response to a given political
prime is positive or negative. Critical here for demonstrating automaticity is the
latency time from the onset of the prime to the onset of the target, or the Stimulus
Onset Asynchrony (SOA).

The time from the onset of the prime word to the onset of the target word
(300 ms) is a critical feature of this priming paradigm as it is too brief an
interval for Ss to develop an active expectancy or response strategy
regarding the target adjective that follows; such conscious and flexible
expectancies require at least 500 ms to develop, and to influence
responses in priming tasks (Neely, 1977; Posner & Snyder, 1975). Given
an SOA (interval from prime to target) of 300 ms, then, if presentation of
an attitude object prime influences response time to a target adjective, it
can only be attributed to an automatic, unintended activation of the
corresponding attitude. (Bargh et al., 1992, p. 894)

Panel b of Figure 1 presents a classic example: if “cockroach” were the prime

and “disgusting” the target, we would expect facilitation—a fast reaction time
because the prime and target are affectively congruent. Conversely, if the target
word were “delightful,” we would expect inhibition—a slower response time. It is
critical to understand that this task truly captures preconscious automaticity since
under fast SOA the S cannot process the prime word consciously. Affective
priming within this paradigm has been demonstrated for many concepts (Bargh
et al., 1992; Fazio, 2001).

Our Experiments on Automaticity in Political Information Processing

Here we will summarize several experiments that are reported more fully
elsewhere. The purpose is to illustrate the application of these experimental
The Automaticity of Attitudes 365

Mean Difference from Baseline RT in ms



Study 1 Study 2

Neg/Neg Pos/Pos Neg/Pos Pos/Neg

Figure 2. Deviations from Mean RTs for Political Primes at Short SOA.

approaches to political processes, and we will not have room for detailed discus-
sions of methods and results.
Hot Cognition Experiments. Lodge and Taber (2000, 2005) developed a series
of experiments (student subjects; total N = 337) to test the hot cognition hypoth-
esis, a key component of their theory of motivated political reasoning. The hot
cognition hypothesis claims that all sociopolitical concepts that have been pro-
cessed in the past are “charged” with positive or negative affect. This is believed
to be an important source of motivated bias in political information processing
(e.g., selective attention, exposure, and judgment). The experiments designed to
test this hypothesis used the attitude priming paradigm described in the last
section, manipulating the affective valence of the prime and target words so that
some pairs were consistent and some inconsistent, and manipulating the time
between the prime and target (SOA = 300 or 1,000 ms). Using a wide range of
political primes, including political persons (e.g., Bush, Gore, Hillary), groups
(e.g., Democrats, Republicans, terrorists), and issues (e.g., Welfare, Death Penalty,
Pro-Life), and a smaller set of affectively unambiguous target words chosen to be
semantically unrelated to the primes (among them: comedy, miracle, rainbow,
toothache, rabies, demon), Lodge and Taber found strong support for the idea that
most if not all political concepts carry automatic affective associations.
Figure 2 graphically represents the relevant interactions for these studies. As
expected, the three-way interaction for SOA, prime valence, and target valence
was highly significant: under a short SOA when responses could only be
366 Burdein et al.

automatic, positive and negatively congruent pairs were significantly faster than
incongruent pairs in both studies, with no contrasts significant at long SOA.
Figure 2 presents these results as deviations from individually normed baselines
for the targets (each individual’s average RT to all negative targets was used as the
baseline for each trial involving a negative target for that individual; similarly,
average RTs to positive targets were used as baselines for each trial involving a
positive target). For example, on average in Study 1 subjects were 12 ms faster
than baseline to say a negative target was negative when preceded by a disliked
political object.
In all experiments we have documented the automaticity of affect across a
broad range of political leaders, groups, and issues, with the predicted prime
valence x target valence interactions. This effect cannot be readily explained by a
cognitively mediated model of affect as there is no discernable semantic link
between, say, Gore or Bush, and “rainbow,” “toothache,” or “mutilate,” yet the
responses are speeded up significantly when the prime and target concepts are
affectively congruent and slowed down when attitudinally incongruent. What we
are seeing is an affective infusion effect (Forgas, 1995)—the affective coloration of
a prime spontaneously spreads to the target concept regardless of any preexisting
semantic connection. These results offer strong support for the impact of precon-
scious affect on the expression of political evaluations.
Automatic Political Identities. The case for automaticity has been strength-
ened considerably in the last decade by reducing time that primes are presented to
subliminal speeds as brief as 15 milliseconds (Krosnik, Betz, Jussim, & Lynn,
1992; Murphy & Zajonc, 1993). At an SOA of 300 milliseconds some Ss may be
dimly aware that a word or picture flashed on the computer screen before the target
word, although few can recall or even recognize the primes at better than chance
levels in their debriefing. By reducing the SOA to speeds of 100 milliseconds or
less the word or picture primes appear as no more than a flicker on the computer
screen and extensive debriefing reveals no awareness of having even seen the
prime let alone having been influenced by it (Bargh, 1989, 1994, 1997; Higgins,
1989; Smith, 1998; Wyer & Srull, 1989).
Political psychologists have long been interested in group identifications (e.g.,
race, gender, partisan, or national identifications), and have posited a central role
for group identifications in the formation and organization of political attitudes and
public opinion (Kinder, 1998; Taber, 2003). By contrast with work on stereotypes
in social psychology, virtually all of the work on group identifications in political
science has assumed that group cognitions operate overtly, at the level of con-
scious deliberation. We make two contrasting claims about political identifica-
tions: first, that the most important influences of group identifications occur within
the first few milliseconds of processing political information; and second, that
much of the influence of group identifications comes from the affective coloration
that they automatically invoke, even before cognitive appraisal brings semantic
associations to mind. Social and political group identifications are hot; in fact, we
The Automaticity of Attitudes 367

Mean Difference from Baseline RT in ms

10 5.47

-10 -4.58

-20 In-Group Out-Group



-52.7 -52.05

Sunshine Cancer

Figure 3. Interaction of Affect Primes and Group ID Targets.

suspect that such group identifications as race and gender are among the “hottest”
of all political objects.
Burdein, Lodge, and Taber (2004) tested for the automaticity of political
identifications under minimalist, context-free conditions, using a subliminal
variant of the attitude priming paradigm (student subjects; N = 108). In particular,
we were interested in the role of automatic affective associations triggered by
exposure to ingroup or outgroup designators. In this study the targets were the
group words (e.g., black, white, man, woman, Democrat, Republican, rich, poor,
liberal, conservative) and the primes were (1) these same group words, (2) gen-
eralized group pronouns (we, they), and (3) pure affect words (cancer, sunshine).
Primes were presented subliminally (40 ms), followed by the targets (the primes
were masked to overwrite sensory memory; for details see Burdein, Lodge, &
Taber, 2004). The task for subjects was to indicate with a “yes” or “no” button
press whether they were a member of the target group. A central hypothesis was
that group identifications would carry automatic affect, so that ingroup targets
would be facilitated and outgroup targets inhibited by positive primes, while
outgroup targets would be facilitated and ingroup targets inhibited by negative
primes, even when these primes were presented subliminally, outside of
Figure 3 reports the most direct test of this hypothesis, showing the highly
significant interaction between prime and target valence: ingroup targets were
significantly facilitated by a pure affect positive prime (sunshine) while outgroup
targets were significantly facilitated by a negative prime (cancer). Since there is no
reason to expect a semantic connection between these concepts, these effects can
368 Burdein et al.

only be due to the affective influence of the subliminal prime on the target
response, and this influence was not consciously mediated.
In this experiment, we also found that ingroup primes facilitated identification
responses to ingroup targets (e.g., a black Democratic respondent was faster
saying she was a Democrat when primed with the word black) while they inhibited
outgroup identifications; conversely outgroup primes facilitated outgroup identi-
fications while inhibiting ingroup identifications. Even group pronoun primes
(e.g., we, they) had strong and significant congruency effects on identification
responses. The second part of this experiment extended these findings to demon-
strate the powerful effects of ingroup and outgroup primes, presented subliminally,
on evaluative judgments (I support versus I oppose) of a range of contemporary
political persons (e.g., Hillary Clinton), groups (e.g., terrorists), and issues (e.g.,
abortion). That is, an ingroup prime facilitated responses to liked political targets
and inhibited responses to disliked political targets (acting exactly like an affective
prime from the earlier automatic affect study), with the expected reverse pattern
for outgroup primes. In short, we found powerful evidence of the automatic
influence of group identifications on political attitudes.

Automaticity in the Wild

Experimental research is rapidly accumulating, mostly in psychology, that

demonstrates the importance of taking account of automatic processes in under-
standing attitudes and behavior. Given the obvious relevance of priming effects
like these to persuasion, it was to be expected that these laboratory methods would
find their way into advertising as “hidden persuaders” and then quickly into the
selling of the president. In the Gore versus Bush 2000 election campaign the
Republican National Committee aired a TV ad nationwide 4,400 times, costing
$2,576,000, which attacked Al Gore’s prescription drug plan. When one segment
of the ad is slowed down the word “RATS” appears on the screen. Shown at regular
speed “RATS” appears on the TV screen at the near-subliminal speed of 300 ms,
superimposed over the words “Bureaucrats Decide.” The ad’s creator, Alex
Castellanos, said it was not his intention to create a subliminal ad, but to make the
ad more visually interesting by flashing part of the word “bureaucrats” on the
screen. “It was,” he said, “just a coincidence that the letters popping out of
‘bureaucrats’ spelled out ‘rats’.” The experimental evidence would predict (Westen
& Weinberger, 2004) an “affective contagion” effect such that Gore and/or his drug
plan would be evaluated more negatively, though there is no evidence to date that
this effect can be achieved with any power in a real campaign ad, outside of the
controlled laboratory setting.
While the above example points out that preconscious priming may exist in
the “real” world, postconscious automaticity certainly plays a large role in political
persuasion. We have argued that subliminal priming (preconscious) is a cleaner
The Automaticity of Attitudes 369

tool for measuring automatic attitudes, but postconscious or explicit priming can
be just as (perhaps more) effective in activating some thoughts and inhibiting
others in real settings.
In both surveys and experiments, we routinely ask people factual questions,
ask for their beliefs, feelings, intentions, and past behaviors. The questions—the
concepts they invoke—determine how memory is searched and consequently what
information is retrieved. From this perspective one can think of the questions as
complex primes, causing some thoughts, feelings, goals, and behaviors to become
more accessible. How people respond—what they say, how they say it, the speed
of their response, and what they don’t say—is a function of what information is
available and accessible in memory.
The impact of postconscious primes on the expression of opinions is routinely
seen in public opinion surveys which show up as question-wording and question-
order effects (Tourangeau, Rips, & Rasinski, 2000). For example, a Washington
Post opinion poll surveying a national sample of 2,886 Americans in November of
2002 when President Bush’s approval rating was in the mid-60s asked two ques-
tions whose order was varied randomly. One question asked whether the country
was headed “in the right direction” or “was seriously off in the wrong direction.”
The other question—posed immediately before or after—asked whether respon-
dents approved or disapproved of the job Bush was doing as President. A pro
“Bush effect” is implied by the finding that 42% of those asked the Bush question
first believed the country was headed in the right direction, whereas only 34% felt
that way when the Bush question was asked second.
This and many other question wording and question order effects are
commonly observed in survey research (Schuman & Presser, 1981; Sudman &
Bradburn, 1974). What is not clear are the underlying processes for such effects.
Is it a cognitive and/or an affective priming effect? Is the Bush-first effect due to
the “framing” of the question in terms of what the President did that warrants
approval or is it a simple affective “halo” effect? The affective infusion hypothesis
predicts that prior affect—whether primed by a President’s name, upbeat music in
the background, or such subliminally presented words as “rat” or “puppy”—would
produce the biasing effect without a conscious appraisal of pro and con consider-
ations. As with flags and other symbols in the backdrop of presidential speeches,
the more subtle and unobtrusive the “manipulation” the stronger the effect is
expected to be, as respondents do not see themselves as having been unduly
manipulated and can plausibly treat their current feeling as a bona fide reaction to
the event (Betsch, Plessner, & Schallies, 2003).


Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Charles Taber

(Department of Political Science, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY
11794-4392). E-mail: ctaber@notes.cc.sunysb.edu
370 Burdein et al.


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