Demand characteristics and their prevalence in psychological research has long been a contested issue. What with the increase in ethical guidelines that means the use of deception is limited it becomes increasingly harder to ensure that the results gathered in experiments are ‘true’. One of the aspects blamed for increased demand characteristics is the sampling methods used in particular volunteer sampling.
The argument goes that volunteer sampling results in an increased amount of demand characteristics as the participant knows they are in an experiment and so will try to judge what is wanted of them from the researcher and either act accordingly or do the opposite of what they think is wanted, known to some as the ‘screw you’ effect. However is this actually what happens? Just because we make participants aware of a study going on doesn’t mean they will try to change their behaviour. This is where I’m going to have to apologise in advance as I’m about to use a study that is so over used in psychology however it does illustrate my point so again sorry. This is apparent in Zimbardos prison study. In this study though participants did know they were taking part in an experiment they didn’t know what the nature of it was. They were then split into prison guards and prisoners and to simplify it acted their roles in the way they thought it should be (though I don’t think this is what they were told to do it is what happened). The behaviour exhibited by the participants was shocking even to Zimbardo himself with participants allocated the role of prisoner going on hunger strikes and prison guards using harsh behaviour against the prisoners. Due to the nature of the behaviour he actually cut the experiment short, he himself now acknowledging that it created a kind of spell even on him that made him not realise how extreme the behaviour had become. Was the behaviour anything to do with demand characteristics though? Zimbardo himself couldn’t predict the reaction in his research. So is it plausible to assume that novice participants would be act in the way they did? However I do concede that this is an extreme case and that sometimes demand characteristics, though slight, do occur. Another question though is: are they avoidable? It’s not just sampling that can effect results but also the experiment design. For example if the experiment uses repeat measures design then the participant is given the chance to repeat the task (say it’s remembering a set of words) this gives them the chance to remember the words better and effect the results in the same way as demand characteristics would.
It seems to me that demand characteristics and slight interference with results is unavoidable in psychology and that no manipulation of sampling method and experimental design will ever be able to get rid of them completely and that the best way to deal with this, without the use of deception, is to use the high measures of control that are being used I psychology.
This entry was actually inspired by a blog I read last week however I can’t really remember whose it was just that it was interesting to read so I thought I’d give my opinion on a similar topic this week. In psychology we aim to be able to develop all-encompassing theories that can be generalised to wider society however what should we do when a single case study comes along that could give very interesting data do we ignore it in order to focus on larger society or do we investigate with the possibility that none of it can be generalised?
One of my favourite case studies during A Level was the case of Genie, a girl found to have suffered from extreme isolation during her first 13years of life. She had been kept alone in a room tied to a potty chair where she was left all day. As a result she was practically mute when discovered by the authorities and hadn’t deeloped properly mentally or physically (she was well known for a bird like walk).After she had been taught and studied for some years by psychologists and linguists alike she did manage to develop some speech mechanisms and did improve. I found this totally fascinating and saw the evidence as being truly groundbreaking as it went against everything that I had ben taught about development so far ie: despite the critial period being over some basic skills were still learnt. Genie however was an exception to how most people are brought up therefore some would say that what was learnt from her can’t be used to explain general upbringing and development. And they would be right, however my question is can it be used for some other purpose in psychology and if it is then is it methodologically sound?
The information gathered from studying Genie and similar cases have been used to support the privation/deprivation debate. In this view then the case was helpful to the advancement of psychology and the field benefitted from it. However because case studies often rely heavily on interpretion of data by the psychologist are they really reliable? Take for example Money’s case of Bruce/Brenda. In 1965 after a botched circumcision a baby boy was left without a penis. At the same time Money had just developed a theory about gender asignement whereby he believed that gender wasn’t set and that a child could be taught to be a certain gender. The baby boy called Bruce went through a operation to correct his sex so he could be brought up as a girl under Money’s advice (Brenda). In Money’s case study he claimed that the child was successfully socialised as a girl and used the case study to prove his theory which resulted in his theory being widley adopted at the time as correct. However in 1997 it was revealed by Sigamudson and Diamond (other researchers that had worked on the case) that in fact Bruce/Brenda had displayed boyish tendencies in childhood and at the age of 14, after being told of the gender change, adopted a male identity. Thus disproving Money’s whole theory. In this case not only has a theory been adopted as true that is, from this evidence. seemingly not true but also one man’s life has been completley runied. In cases like this is the use mof case studies something that should be used in psychology?
If you are interested in any of the case studies mentioned in this blog the links are below. For the most info on Money’s case study click on the jhu link as it leads to the university that conducted the experiment’s page.
In last week’s blog I touched on the issue of whether or not a
psychologist has a social responsibility when they are researching ie: if the
findings of their study lead to negative consequences for society are they
still responsible or are they separated from their results the minute it’s
published? And should they be thinking of this before and during their investigation?
For researchers the question lies in where the line is
drawn when they no longer bear responsibility for their research. For example
if a researcher conducts a study and draws from it that African-Caribbean
people are innately designed to be criminals and due to their findings an
increase in discrimination against African-Caribbean’s ensues does the psychologist
bear some of the blame? In this case is it the fault of the psychologist that
social reaction led to discrimination against a social group? My answer is yes,
in my opinion psychologists should always be aware of the social implications
that their findings may have. In my opinion psychologists’ aim should be to
improve society and if they actually cause society to regress ie: take it back
in attitude rather than forward then they bear the responsibility. Surely this
is also the general view in psychology; if it wasn’t then the stringent
measures put in place for protection of participants would be pointless. Albert
Einstein, after helping to develop the atom bomb, is quoted as saying if he’d
have known what it would have been used for before he’d developed it he never
would have done. Having a socially responsible psychology ensures that such a
mistake isn’t made in the psychological field. Yes, I realise that no
psychologist sets out to purposely regress society and that no one can predict
how their study will turn out but being consciously aware of the possible
social implication ensures that issues like discrimination aren’t publicised
because of psychological findings.