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Chapter 2: Doing Social Psychology Research
IS SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY A SCIENCE? (Lecture Notes)
What is Science?
• Science: Systematized knowledge derived from observation, study and experimentation carried on in
order to determine the nature or principles of what is being studied. So, is psychology science?
• Define by Example: List some fields which are sciences, and some which are not.
1) Sciences: Physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, astronomy
2) Non-Sciences: Languages, fine arts, philosophy, law, history, religious studies
• The difference between the two is empiricism, where science areas tend to measure things. However,
history does use evidence to determine what happened in the past, and mathematics can be argued to
be a branch of philosophy – math statements are not tested by empirically examining the world around
• Define by Features: What are characteristics of a field that make it science?
1) Empiricism, involving measurement: Science as an attempt to answer questions about our world
based on data, the scientific method.
2) Precise and predictive: In fact, various areas of science differ dramatically in the precision of their
measurements and predictions: e.g. meteorology, the prediction of weather. On the other hand,
astrology bases predictions on objective measurements of the movement of planets, but it is not
regarded as science.
3) Precision varies depending on the question – “Ask a biologist to predict, not that the leaves will fall
in autumn, but which leaf will hit the ground first. He will be no more precise than a psychologist.”
4) Social scientists like psychologist generally work with much less control over their study subject,
and have more unknowns: the nature of their questions guarantees less precision, not their failure
to properly apply scientific principles and methods.
5) Theoretical: Social psychology has a plethora of theories.
The History of Studying Social Facilitation
• Norman Triplett noticed that when he cycled, his practice times seemed to be faster when he worked
out with others rather than alone. Was this true, or just an accident of random variables coinciding?
Theory: the presence of others (social) may be improving his performance (facilitation).
• 1898 experiment: Task of winding fish line onto reels has length of line wound measured, comparing
children who worked alone or in the presence of other children for a specific period of time. As predicted,
those working in the presence of others wound more fish line.
• However, such a result does not prove a theory.
1) Theories are approximations to the way the world operates, and will only be ever correct up to a
2) Only one possibility was tested in this experiment: the theory makes a general claim, presumably
on any task and even presumably not just among humans. It is possible that the effect will occur in
none or only some of the possible situations; therefore, it is necessary to test the theory further.
Dashiel (1930): Testing children on multiplication tables alone or in groups; children perform
better in groups. This supports the theory, and extends the results to females and mental
tasks. Furthermore, Triplett had demonstrated a co-action effect (people influenced by
others doing the same task at the same time) but Dashiel demonstrates the audience
effect since only one student at a time was answering the question, but the others were still
influenced to do better.
Pessin (1933): Students recall list of nonsense syllables, doing better if others were
watching. Social facilitation also extends to memory tasks, and to young adults. Page 2 of 13
Harlow (1932): Rats ate substantially more on days when they were fed in the same cage,
than when they were fed separately. Social facilitation extends to non-human mammals.
Chen (1937): Ants start faster and move more sand over same amount of time in pairs than
• However, not all results were consistent with the theory:
1) Husband (1931): Students take longer to escape a finger maze (finding way out of maze with
finger, without lifting finger from box, without being able to see in the box) if others are watching.
2) Klopfer (1958): Birds in pairs took longer to discriminate, by colours, the good from the bad food.
3) Gates & Allee (1933): Cockroaches in pairs take longer to learn a maze.
4) Ader & Tatum (1963): Students must learn that by pressing a red button on a box, the electric
shock they receive every 30 seconds would be delayed by 30 seconds. So as long as the button is
pushed at least once every 30 seconds, no more shocks would be received; if more than 30
seconds pass without the button being pushed, another shock is delivered. An individual takes
about 12 minutes to learn the trick, succeeding in ending the session after 2 minutes without a
shock; most pairs never learn the response after 2 hours.
5) Pessin (1933): Although students better recall nonsense syllables with an audience, they initially
learned the list better alone than with others.
• Robert Zajonc (1965): Noticed that social facilitation tends to facilitate performing but not necessarily
learning, although simple learning tasks can be facilitated. New theory:
1) The presence of conspecifics increases generalized drive (arousal). Dominant perspective in early
20 century, although now out of favour.
2) As drive (arousal) increases, the organism is more likely to emit dominant responses. Habit
hierarchies are ordered set of responses to a given stimulus, with the ordering indicating how
likely the organism is to make each possible response – the most probable response being the
dominant. Position in the hierarchy is established through a combination of natural tendencies
(biological predispositions) and experience.
E.g. Response to “How’s it going?” can be “Yeah, good” (probablility = 0.43, dominant), “OK I
guess” (P = 0.26), silence (P = 0.11) etc.
3) For well-learned or easy tasks, the dominant response is the correct response. If well-learned,
organism has learned to make the correct response, making it dominant. If new but correct
response is still dominant, task is easy to learn since response hierarchy is same.
4) For poorly learned and difficult tasks, the dominant response is not the correct response. The task
is more difficult or poorly learned if the dominant (natural) response is not the correct response.
5) For well-learned and easy tasks, the presence of others facilitates performance. For poorly learned
and difficult tasks, the presence of others inhibits performance.
• This new theory must be tested with new studies: Presence of audience facilitates learning an easy list of
associated words (sun-moon, mother-father), but inhibits learning a difficult list (tea-earth, groundhog-
• Other variables about the audience also matter:
o The size of the audience also: effect stronger for larger audiences
o Audience expertise: the more knowledgeable the audience, the stronger the effect
o Evaluative orientation: if the audience is actively evaluating task performance, effect is stronger
So What is Science?
• Science is the process of trying to understand the world by engaging in the endless sprocession of
theories and tests of theories. Any endeavour that evaluates the quality of its understanding of the world
by testing theories or hypotheses with data is scientific. Page 3 of13
WHY SHOULD YOU LEARN ABOUT RESEARCH METHODS?
• Social psychology is relevant to our everyday lives, since there are so many common-sense notions
about social psychological questions that it can be difficult to separate myth from truth.
• Knowing and understanding the evidence behind social psychological findings will make it easier to
distinguish between actual scientific findings and mere intuitions.
• Training in research methods can also improve reasoning of real-life events, becoming better able to
critically evaluate information to which we are exposed, to separate fact from fiction.
DEVELOPING IDEAS: BEGINNING THE RESEARCH PROCESS
• Every social psychology study begins with a question: they can come from a variety of sources, even
from reading about research that has already been done: Solomon Asch (1946)’s expansion on Muzafer
Sherif (1936)’s work on conformity even if it’s clear the group is wrong.
Searching the Literature
• Once the idea is in mind, one must see what research has already been done on this topic and on
related topics. This can be done by searching electronic databases.
• Once some relevant articles have been found, they can refer to other articles which are also relevant:
treeing can prove very valuable in tracking down information.
• Through searching the literature, the question should become more precise, more specific to particular
sets of conditions that are likely to have different effects, and more readily testable.
Hypotheses and Theories
• Hypothesis: An explicit, testable prediction about the conditions under which an event will occur.
• Based on observation, existing theory, or previous research findings, one might test a hypothesis like
“Teenage boys are more likely to be aggressive to others if they have just played a violent video game for
an hour, than if they played a nonviolent video game for an hour.”
• Theory: An organized set of principles used to explain observed phenomena. Theories are evaluated in
terms of 3 criteria: simplicity, comprehensiveness, and generativity. The best theories are elegant and
precise, encompass all the relevant information, and lead to new hypotheses, further research and better
• Social psychologists use mini-theories that address limited and specific aspects of the way people
behave, make explicit predictions about behaviour, and allow meaningful empirical investigation.
• Daryl Bem’s Self-Perception Theory: When people’s internal states, such as a feeling or attitude, are
difficult for them to interpret (ambiguous), they infer this feeling or attitude by observing their own
behaviour and the situation in which it takes place.
• Good theories inspire subsequent research, stimulating systematic studies designed to test various
aspects of the theories and the specific hypotheses derived from them.
• For example, Bem’s self-perception theory helped organize and make sense of previously-found
evidence, and generated testable new hypotheses which led to a greater understanding of the processes
Basic and Applied Research
• Basic research seeks to increase our understanding of human behaviour, and is often designed to test
a specific hypothesis from a specific theory. Page 4 of13
• Applied research makes use of social psychology’s theories or methods to enlarge our understanding
of naturally occurring events, and to contribute to the solution of social problems.
• Basic and applied research are closely connected, and some studies test a theory and examine a real-
world phenomenon simultaneously.
o Kurt Lewin (1951) encouraged basic researchers to be concerned with complex social
problems, and urged applied researches to recognize how important and practical good theories
REFINING IDEAS: DEFINING & MEASURING SOCIAL
Conceptual Variables and Operational Definitions: Abstract to Specific
• When a hypothesis first develops, there are conceptual variables: prejudice, conformity, attraction,
• These conceptual variables must be transformed into ones which can be manipulated and measured.
The specific way in which this happens is called the operational definition of the variable, e.g.
conformity is the number of times a participant indicates agreement with the obviously wrong judgements
made by a group of confederates.
• There is no single best way to transform a variable from the abstract to the specific, but there are
systematic, statistical ways of checking how valid various manipulations and measures are.
• The manipulation and measurement of variables is evaluated in terms of their construct validity.
o 1) Extent to which the manipulations in an experiment really manipulate the conceptual
variables they were designed to
o 2) The measures used in a study really measure the conceptual variables they were designed to
• In a study on the effects of alcohol on aggression, and the two conceptual variables are whether or not
participants are intoxicated, and aggression.
o Measures could be assessing blood alcohol concentration, measuring ability to perform simple
tasks, or asking them how drunk they feel.
o For aggression, measuring is difficult – may measure administering shocks to another person as
part of a specific task.
Measuring Variables: Using Self-Reports, Observations, and Technology
• Self-reports are pieces in which participants disclose their thoughts, feelings, desires, and actions and
is a widely-used measurement technique. They can consist of individual questions or sets of questions
that together measure a single conceptual variable.
• One example is the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, a set of questions which measures individuals’
overall self-esteem such as by rating the extent to which they agree with statements like “All in all, I am
inclined to feel that I’m a failure.”
• Self-reports give access to an individual’s beliefs and perceptions, but are not always accurate:
o The desire to look good to ourselves and others can influence our response. This can be
somewhat discouraged by the bogus pipeline technique, where participants are falsely led to
believe their responses will be verified by an infallible lie-detector.
o Self-reports are also affected by the way in which questions are asked, their wording and in
what order or context they are asked. E.g. Perception of whether condoms are effective in
stopping AIDS when told they have a 95% success rate, vs. a 5% failure rate. Page 5 of13
o Even the exact same question can elicit very different responses depending on context:
subjects asked how important the issue of skin cancer is, but either before or after a series of
questions about other health concerns. Subjects rated it as more important if the question was
asked first than if it came later.
o Self-reports often ask to report on thoughts or behaviours from the past, and people’s memory
is very prone to error. This can be minimized with:
Interval-contingent self-reports, where respondents report their experiences at regular
Signal-contingent self-reports, where respondents report their experiences as soon as
possible after being signalled.
Event-contingent self-reports, where respondents report on a designated set of events
as soon as possible after such events have occurred. The Rochester Interaction Record
(RIR) is such a self-report used by respondents to record every social interaction lasting 10
minutes or more that occurs over the course of the study.
• Most self-reports require specific answers to specific questions, but narrative studies collect lengthy
responses on a general topic. These are analyzed in terms of a coding scheme developed by the
researcher: coding descriptions of an event for the use of particular stereotypes, coding diaries for
evidence of the writer’s personality style, and newspaper sports articles for the athlete’s explanation for
winning or losing.
• Interrater reliability refers to the level of agreement among multiple observers of the same behaviour
– only when different observers agree can the data be trusted. This is necessary when observations are
• The observational method helps avoid faulty recollections and distorted interpretations of our own
behaviour. However, if individuals know they are being observed, this method may be just as vulnerable
to people’s desire to present themselves in a favourable light.
• New tools of technology can make extremely precise, subtle and complex observations: physiological
responses (heart rate, hormone level, sexual arousal), speed of response to stimuli, attention to stimuli
(eye-tracking devices) etc.
• Brain-imaging technologies such as PET and fMRI provide visual images of activity while the subject is
thinking, making decisions, responding to stimuli, and so on. For example, although participants show no
signs of racial biases on self-reports or observable behaviour, they may still show increased activity in
parts of their brain associated with feelings of threat or strong emotion.
The Social Psychology of the Experiment (Lecture Notes)
• Experiments are also social interactions governed by social psychological principles: subjects react to
experiments in complex ways, and this can lead to inappropriate interpretation of results.
• Martin Orne: Realized that subjects fake being hypnotized, and would deny the faking if asked. This is
the pact of ignorance – subjects know they are not supposed to know what is going on in the studies,
and to avoid social discomfort or avoid “messing” up the study results, they must deny their knowledge. If
the experimenter counts on the fact that subjects do not know, the experimenter will misinterpret the
• Demand Characteristics: Total or combined set of cues available in the experimental setting used by
the research participant to decide how to behave. This includes intentionally manipulated aspects such
as instructions and equipment, but can also include the personality and experience of the experimenter,
the time of day, or the method of recruitment (for pay or extra credit, from prisons or random phone
numbers, etc.) Page 6 of 13
• Interpreting results: Results can be misinterpreted if experimenter thinks subjects are responding to one
set of cues, but they are actually responding to another – the “two experiment problem”. If the
participants react to unintended factors, the results cannot be interpreted as a test of the hypothesis at
all. How to fix this?
• If we simply ask participants, they may not tell us due to the pact of ignorance. Instead, we can use
verbal conditioning, exploiting the fact that people who are rewarded after using certain words increase
o Subjects are handed a pack of cards with verbs, e.g. “walked” as well as a set of pronouns – he,
she, I, we, they, you. They must make a sentence starting with a pronoun and use the verb on the
o At first the experimenter simply sits and listens, noting the baseline estimate of how often the
subject uses each pronoun. Then the experimenter starts to response, e.g. saying “good” only after
sentences beginning with “you”. The frequency of sentences beginning with the targeted pronoun
increased as expected.
o Why did the use increase? Was it due to unconscious conditioning, or did subjects figure out what
the experimenter wanted them to do (hypothesis awareness) and thus provided the expected
o When asked what they thought the study was about, participants would just repeat the cover story,
e.g. sentence production as a measure of creativity.
o However, using a funnelling set of questions, participants admit that the experimenter responded to
some sentences but not to others, and that this response was based on the pronoun they selected/
o To see if this was unconscious conditioning or if participants figured it out from the questions they
were asked after the study, researchers also asked, “Which pronoun was reinforced?” Participants
could not say which pronoun had been reinforced, meaning the verbal conditioning occurred
TESTING IDEAS: RESEARCH DESIGNS
Descriptive Research: Discovering Trends and Tendencies
• The goal of descriptive research is to describe people and their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.
For example, this can test questions such as “Do most people support capital punishment?” and “How
many people who encounter a person lying on the sidewalk would offer help?” Particular methods of
descriptive research include:
• To investigate questions around bullying, observational studies by researchers directly and carefully
watching interactions, or using hidden cameras and microphones, can be better than self-report
• Archival research involves examining existing records of past events and behaviours, such as
newspaper articles, medical records, diaries, sports statistics, crime statistics, etc.
• Since researchers are observing behaviour second-hand, they can be sure they did not influence the
behaviour by its presence. However, a limitation is that available records are not always complete or
sufficiently detailed, and may have been collected in a non-systematic manner.
• Archival studies are particularly valuable for examining cultural and historical trends, such as those
concerning the rate of violent crime and how it has changed in recent years – data from record of police
stations and the FBI, for example. Other examples: proportion of New Yorker cartoons that feature black
men and women, and waist-to-hip ratio of Miss America winners.
Surveys Page 7 of13
• Conducting surveys involves asking people questions about their attitudes, beliefs, and attitudes in
person, over the phone, via mail or the Internet. Many social psychological questions can be addressed
only with surveys, since they involve variables that are impossible or unethical to observe directly or
manipulate, such as sexual behaviours or optimism about the future.
• There is a science to designing, conducting, and interpreting survey results. Like other self-report
measures, they can be affected strongly by subtle aspects of wording and context.
• To select who will take part in the survey, researchers must identify the population in which they are
interested. From this general population, the researchers select a subset, or sample of individuals. This
sample must be representative of the population on important characteristics such as age, sex, race,
income, education, and cultural background.
• Random sampling is the best way to achieve this representativeness, in which everyone in a
population has an equal chance of being selected for the sample.