The Red Herring Technique: A Methodological Response to the Problem of Demand Characteristics
Psychological Research, Vol. 72, pp. 362-365, 2008
15 Pages Posted: 1 Oct 2008 Last revised: 11 Sep 2010
Date Written: September 8, 2010
In past research, we planted false memories for food related childhood events using a simple false feedback procedure. Some critics have worried that our findings maybe due to demand characteristics. In the present studies, we developed a novel procedure designed to reduce the influence of demand characteristics by providing an alternate magnet for subjects' natural suspicions. We used two separate levels of deception. In addition to giving subjects atypical untrue rationale for the study (i.e., normal deceptive cover story), we built in strong indicators (the Red Herring) that the study actually had another purpose. Later, we told subjects that we had deceived them, and asked what they believed the real purpose of the study was. We also interviewed a subset of subjects in depth in order to analyze their subjective experiences of the procedure and any relevant demand. Our Red Herring successfully tricked subjects, and left little worry that our false memory results were due to demand. This double cross technique may have widespread uses in psychological research that hopes to conceal its real hypotheses from experimental subjects.
Pick up any introductory psychology textbook and you will find a discussion of demand characteristics. Psychological researchers of every stripe worry that subjects willing validate research findings by trying to behave like good subjects. Experimental volunteers want to do well, the argument goes, so they search for clues as to what the research is really about. The clues, in effect, cause subjects to feel that a certain kind of response is demanded - thus the term demand characteristics. Many subjects act on this demand and comply with what they believe researchers want from them. Other subjects may feel unduly pressured by these experimental constraints or, alternately, defiant of them, and thus intentionally behave in a way that will not support the hypotheses of the experimenters. Either way, demand characteristics can make experimental results hard to interpret or actually meaningless. They can also make manuscript reviewers wary of studies that use deception.
We begin by outlining the problem of demand characteristics in psychological research in general and reviewing how this problem has been addressed in one specific area of psychological research, namely memory distortion. We then present a new proposed method, the Red Herring technique, designed to reduce the risk of demand characteristics. Finally, we discuss how semi-structured interviews after an experiment may provide insight into the classification and analysis of responses from subjects who are particularly at risk of succumbing to demand.
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