Experimental Social Psychology – Strengths and Weaknesses Essay

Outline the main features of experimental social psychology and consider the influences that led to its emergence. What do you think are its strengths and weaknesses? Psychology was originally a branch of Philosopy, according to Hollway (2007). As more emphasis was placed on following scientific methods and principles, psychologists began using laboratory experiments to carry out research into individual behaviours. Experiments were considered to be more objective when considering individuals within the social world.

Researchers were able to separate different situations that occurred in natural settings in an attempt to replicate particular aspects in a laboratory environment.

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One of the earliest examples of contemporary social psychology, according to Hollway (2007) was that espoused by Walter Moede. In his 1920 pamphlet on Experimental Group Psychology he suggested the use of laboratory settings to measure group behaviour which would allow different effects to be manipulated. Moede’s work influenced the American, when Allport who, by using Moede’s approach, investigated how people’s judgemental abilities are affected by their group membership.

This was considered the start of North American experimental social psychology, which focused on understanding how social stimuli impacted on individuals. A second form of social psychology, sociological social psychology developed alongside the experimental methodology. This version involved the individual and social interaction focusing more on the use of naturalistic observations and surveys. Mainstream social psychology in the United Kingdom was influenced by the experimental tradition of North America.

Miles Hewstone and Antony Manstead, in the Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Social Psychology defined Social Psychology as “the scientific study of the reciprocal influence of the individual and his or her social context” (1995, p. 588, cited by Hollway, 2007). Their interpretation of scientific was empirical and mostly experimental. Most of the experimental research in North America was carried out at university laboratories using university students. This was mainly due to the view that power universities and funding bodies had over the experimental social psychology during that time.

The results from the research were considered to be representative of the population as a whole. In the 1960’s and 1970’s the experimental research carried out in the United States was causing anxiety amongst some social psychologists. A particular set of studies carried out by Stanley Milgram (cited by Hollway 2007), which involved participants administering what they thought were electric shocks to learners, brought to the forefront some of the concerns about the way experiments were carried out. One of the criticisms was the view that experimental results produced from using university environments were ecological validity.

Viv Burr (cited by Taylor, 2007) argued that the authority of the institutional context of the experiments in a university setting led to the results of their findings being distorted. This possible distortion caused by the institutional environment was largely ignored by experimental social psychologists. However, from results to the initial feedback interviews in his study, Milgram did acknowledge that the use of a laboratory in a university setting appeared to have given authority to the instructions received by the participants.

He therefore carried out a further experiment in premises away from the university. This produced a reduced level of obedience, 48% as opposed to 65% in the original experiment. Milgram dismissed the difference in the results as insignificant. However, Wendy Hollway (Hollway, 2007) expressed a different view pointing out that in the second experiment the majority of participants were disobedient and therefore, in her opinion, the results were significant. Experimental research is primarily quantitative based and produces results which can be presented statistically.

The ability to show objective statistical results to experimental questions is something, according to Professor Haslem (DVD1, DD307, 2009), that is seen as valuable, as they can be easily understood by many people. However, this objectivity is brought into question when researchers interpretations of results (as shown above) can differ. Also, by Milgram ignoring the level of disobedience, this area of the study was rendered invisible. A key criterion of experimentation involves the participants being blind to the manipulation of variables.

This prevents prior knowledge affecting the results. Although in some cases this involves deception, Professor Haslem points out most experimental social psychologists accept this as necessary if there is a strong scientific case for the research and providing the participants are not subjected to enduring harm. The introduction of strict research ethics meant that cognitive social psychologists must follow strict guidelines when designing research studies, which included ensuring the safety of their participants.

However, in the 1960’s and 1970’s scientific knowledge was the most important consideration and researchers were given a free hand, which meant there were no adequate measures to protect the well-being of the participants. In Milgram’s words ‘before you do the experiment, you don’t know whether there will be stress (Milgram 1977, p. 97 cited by Hollway, 2007). The research carried out during those two decades has to be considered in terms of its situatedness. The use of deception can in certain situations be an advantage.

In an experiment investigating Schadenfreude, Russell Spears (cited by Hollway, 2007) used a technique called a ‘bogus pipeline’ in which the participants believed that they were connected to an emotional detector. More honesty and Schadenfreude was exhibited by the participants. By using the experimental methodology, particularly in this study, no individual person’s view is identified as their own, i. e. their view is anonymous, which could lessen a person’s reluctance to be honest.

Even if experiments have been planned carefully and approved by ethics committees, it is still not completely possible to identify the level of anxiety experienced by individual participants. Therefore, debriefing the participants after the experiment can reduce the level of anxiety. A further value of debriefing is the participants have the opportunity to feedback to the researchers on their views. This information may help to inform any future research carried out in that field. Experimentation is still essential to social cognitive research, according to Professor Haslem.

Within experimental social psychology there are different theoretical perspectives and within these different perspectives, researchers make statements about a variety of causal roles. Relevant theoretical variables are isolated, which are then manipulated and the impact on the outcome variables is recorded. Therefore a relationship between cause and effect can be established. Because of this control, it is possible to rule out alternative explanations, or at least reduce the potential impact.

Whilst Professor Haslem conceded that there are other ways of controlling activities (DVD1, DD307, 2007), he argued the use of experiments ensured greater flexibility over the research question. Experimentation allowed for a variety of responses to be gathered, for example paper based, computerised, analysis of physiological responses by recording events, or a combination of the aforementioned. Power relations, according to Wendy Holloway (Hollway, 2007), are ‘essential in the way that all knowledge gets produced, interpreted and taken up’.

In an experimental setting, the researchers and experimenters have the power as they decide on the method that is adopted and the participants involvement. Therefore careful consideration has to be given as to what interpretations are made on the evidence gained. So it could be argued that a weakness of the experimental approach is that power generally lies with the researcher from deciding what to research to how to do it and potentially the influence they have as an individual on participants.

A criticism of using experiments is the amount of control and intervention imposed on the participants by the researchers, but not all experiments are carried out in laboratories. Some use field settings which attempt to impose more ecological validity by mirroring what people would do in their normal lives. Even with these settings, there is still a certain amount of control and intervention imposed on the situation. However, Professor Haslem makes a good point when he argues that many real life situations have constraints imposed on them.

His analogy of a dinner party in supports his argument, where the situation is controlled by the host/hostess in their choice of guests and their positions at the dinner table. Therefore, experimental situations in everyday settings, Professor Haslem argues (DVD1, DD307, 2007), can offer important insights into behaviour. It would be a mistake to consider experimental social psychology as the only method of social psychology; it is only one of four, the other three being discursive, psychoanalytic and phenomenological.

The main difference is that experimental social psychology uses a statistical methodology. In certain situations, all of the methodologies could be used to investigate a situation, each from a different viewpoint and the combined results provide a richer and more complex insight. For example while discursive investigates what is read, the other three methodologies seek to analyse the objects that are hidden from view, but in different ways.

With experimentation, according to Richard Spears (cited by Hollway, 2007), ‘offers a depth of explanation enabling researchers to dig beneath the surface and investigate psychological processes that are not always visible or accessible by direct accounts’. Experimentation is considered by Richard Spears (Hollway, 2007) as a useful tool which can identify things that people may not themselves be aware of or do not wish to admit. As Russell Spears points out, each methodology is like a different part of a jigsaw, which only when used together can complete the picture.

References Haslem, A. (2007) in DVD 1, DD307, The Open University Hollway, W. (2007) ‘Social psychology: past and present’, in W. Hollway, H. Lucey and A. Phoenix (eds) Social Psychology Matters, Milton Keynes, Open University Press. Hollway, W. (2007) ‘Methods and knowledge in social psychology’, in W. Hollway, H. Lucey and A. Phoenix (eds) Social Psychology Matters, Milton Keynes, Open University Press. Taylor, S. (2007) ‘Introduction’, in D. Langdridge and S. Taylor (eds) Critical Readings in Social Psychology, Milton Keynes, Open University Press.

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