Experimental realism refers to the extent to which an experimental manipulation actively involves the participants in the research. If the manipulations are realistic, the phenomenology of the participant will be like that of a person in the social circumstance being indexed by the manipulation even if the lab circumstance is quite different than the naturalistic one. Thus, the goal of developing realistic experimental manipulations is to have participants really experience whatever psychological states the experimenters are interested in studying in the context of the conditional variations that might instantiate those states. To the extent that the participant is made to take the experiment seriously they will be more likely to be influenced by the manipulations.
The general logic of the experimental method in research is based on the detection of causal relationships. An independent variable is manipulated in a controlled environment, with the intention of assessing how the changes in the independent variable influence the dependent variable. Therefore, by controlling for other possible influences, an experiment can help determine whether changes in the independent variable cause changes in the dependent variable. It is important for the manipulation of the independent variable to be strong enough to have the desired effect on the participants. If the experimental manipulation does not actively involve the participants, the resultant experiment is not an accurate test of the causal relationship between the independent and dependent variables.
If an experiment lacks experimental realism, the participants are not affected by the manipulation of the independent variable. Thus, researchers’ efforts to maximize a study’s experimental realism are important in ensuring the construct validity of an experiment. Construct validity refers to the effectiveness of experimental manipulation. A study is high in construct validity when the manipulation produces the intended changes in the conceptual variable. When the variables in an experiment truly represent the abstract, hypothetical variables of which the researcher is interested, the study is said to possess a high level of construct validity.
The issue of validity is often used to critique experimental designs. It is sometimes difficult for researchers to defend their experiment and show that their study was high in experimental realism. One way to measure the extent to which participants were actively involved in the psychological processes engaged by the research is to use manipulation checks. A manipulation check involves measuring whether the participants actually experienced different levels of the independent variable. This serves to provide a test of whether the study had adequate experimental realism. That is, did the participants believe the manipulation?
It is difficult to specify exactly what makes a study high in experimental realism. The experimental design typically involves the use of some deception. This is because the researcher needs to create a convincing illusion in order to have participants become engaged in the manipulation of the independent variable. It is generally advised that a researcher create a manipulation that is as strong as possible, within the confines of ethical and practical concerns. This ensures that the manipulation is maximally effective, thereby increasing the experimental realism of the study.
Even if explicit deception is not used in the experimental design, the researcher will often misinform the participants about the true purpose of the experiment. This involves what is referred to as a “cover story,” where the researcher describes the purpose of the study to the participant using a believable but fake explanation. This serves to get participants into the right frame of mind for the purposes of the experiment, while ensuring that participants will not know the true purpose of the study and behave in a certain manner simply because it is what the experimenter expects.
One famous psychological experiment, conducted by Stanley Milgram in 1974, relied on deception to achieve experimental realism. In this experiment of obedience, participants were led to believe that they were taking part in a study of the effects of punishment on learning and were asked to deliver strong electric shocks to a fellow participant whenever he failed to learn an association between two words. As the intensity of the shock the participant ostensibly delivered to the learner increased, and the learner began to complain of a heart condition, participants often questioned the method or protested the use of such strong shocks. The researcher would always respond in the same manner, assuring the participant that the learner would not suffer any permanent damage and that the integrity of the experiment required that he continue with the shocks. The true purpose of the experiment was to determine whether participants would obey the instructions of the researcher and continue to injure the learner even when they personally felt that it was wrong to do so. If participants had known the true purpose of the experiment, one can assume that they would not have continued to obey the experimenter. However, the deception used in this experiment allowed researchers to investigate the conditions under which participants will obey an authority figure that orders them to harm another person.
This strategy of using deception to minimize reactivity and response bias on the part of participants is a matter of ethical debate, since participants agree to take part in the research based on a fabricated explanation of the purpose of the experiment. However, the use of this deceptive practice is justified by researchers explaining that many questions cannot be meaningfully addressed in the context of an experiment without the use of deception, and that this practice results in minimal risk or harm to the participant. Indeed, after researchers explained the true purpose of the experiment to participants in Milgram’s experiment (in a process known as debriefing), most participants said that they understood why deception needed to be used in explaining the purpose of the study and that they did not regret participating.
Experimental realism is often discussed in contrast to mundane realism (also known as ecological validity). Mundane realism refers to the extent to which the research is conducted in situations that are highly similar to everyday life experiences. Experimental research designs often don’t have high levels of mundane realism, since they are typically conducted in artificially created situations. However, even if the research situation doesn’t look the same as an everyday situation, it can still feel like a real experience. That is the goal of maximizing experimental realism: to get an artificial experimental manipulation to feel like a real experience.
SEE ALSO Experiments, Controlled; Experiments, Human; Validation
Pelham, Brett W., and Hart Blanton. 2002. Conducting Experiments in Psychology: Measuring the Weight of Smoke. 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thompson Learning.