Experimental Laboratories in Social Psychology Research Paper

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What is an experimental laboratory in social psychology? A lab is defined as a place that contains equipment necessary for scientific work. Under this definition the two key words are ‘equipment necessary.’ In practice, the contents of a lab are dictated by the kind of research one does and the equipment necessary to facilitate that research. The social psychologist studying communication patterns within a married couple needs a different lab than a social psychologist studying the psychophysiological correlates of aggressive behavior or a social psychologist testing a behavioral implication of attribution theory. Sometimes a social psychology lab is merely a small room with a computer. As long as that space, and the equipment it houses, allows the research to be conducted, then the room can be called a lab. Much as Pygmalion carved his ideal mate out of ivory, a social psychologist creates an ideal research environment from the equipment necessary to conduct research.

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1. The Computer

There is one piece of equipment that has become indispensable in just about all social psychology labs—the computer. At minimum, the computer facilitates the editing of manuscripts. Writing experts claim that the ability to edit and rewrite one’s prose is critical for clear, crisp writing. Further, a sophisticated user of a word processing program can format a manuscript in the manner required by a journal editor and easily construct a reference list from an electronic database. An Internet connection permits electronic mail where, for instance, collaborators can exchange working drafts of articles, and authors can submit manuscripts for publication electronically as well as distribute reports to other interested parties. In this sense, the computer has replaced the typewriter as the machine used to write and is replacing the copier as the machine used to disseminate the written product of one’s research.

There are, of course, more advanced uses of the computer in social psychological research. For instance, the computer can be useful in data collection. Unlike the traditional paper-and-pencil questionnaire, administering a survey by computer permits automatic tailoring of questions depending on the answers the respondent provides to previous questions. Software can help in solving and administering complicated sampling designs, and can facilitate elaborate laboratory procedures (such the presentation of research stimuli at a rapid rate or the timing of a participant’s response).

Some researchers have started placing their studies on the world wide web, to complement their lab and field data collection. Though few researchers allow anyone access to their study (for one reason, it would not be clear how to establish the relevant population to generalize the research findings), the world wide web makes it convenient to collect data at multiple sites from any number of computer platforms. This permits data collection anywhere in the world at relatively little expense.

Computers are also used to analyze data. A simple spreadsheet program can be used for descriptive statistics and simple inferential tests, whereas specialized software is needed for more computationally intensive data analytic techniques such as bootstrapping and empirical bayes algorithms. Even the analysis of some forms of qualitative data (such as narratives) can be facilitated through the use of special software programs designed to convert the original data into a theoretically linked database to facilitate analysis.

The computer also aids lab management. There exists planning software that helps organize interdependent parts of a research project on to a time line. Such time lines are useful not only for lab management but also for grant proposals. Scheduling and calendaring software can facilitate the scheduling of lab facilities and lab meetings.

How many computers should a lab contain? What kind of computer should a lab have? These questions are difficult to answer in the abstract because so much depends on the research question. For example, one project may involve 200 hand-held computers because the study is on 200 married couples who answer questions each evening at home for a month directly on the hand-held computer. These couples visit the lab weekly to download their data. On the other hand, a researcher who studies social interaction through computer simulation may only need one computer. There is obviously a wide range of needs and, as stated above, the needs of the research drive the equipment required in the lab.

2. What Is Your Research Question?

It is useful to consider three factors when designing a lab in social psychology: the context the researcher needs to conduct the research, the manipulations the researcher will perform, and the measurements the researcher will make. Each of these three issues are subsumed by the following more general question: what is your research question? If your research question is how Mayans conceptualize kinship terms, then you would need a special setting, special materials, and special measures.

2.1 What Context Does The Research Require?

What context does the research require? For example, if one wants to study social behaviors in a bar, then it might be useful to design a lab setting that resembles a bar (complete with mood music, barstools, and liquor cabinets). If one wants to study jury deliberation, then it is useful to design a lab setting that resembles an actual jury deliberation. These labs can be constructed to reproduce, or mimic, a real-world setting, and hence increase the external validity of the research.

However, it is also possible to study social behavior in an artificial setting, an analog setting that evokes similar psychological processes as the real-world setting but is easier to create and easier to control. An example is the classic Milgram (1975) study on obedience. Milgram claimed that his obedience findings could help us understand how citizens in a totalitarian government may be pressured to follow superiors, but his research setting was actually low in external validity with respect to totalitarian governments. Instead, Milgram’s research setting was successful at evoking the psychological processes that make it difficult to refuse requests or refuse to follow orders. Milgram’s lab setting involved an elaborate stage production that the experiment was about the effects of punishment on learning. However, the actual purpose of the study was to examine the social interaction between the participant (who believed he was playing the role of the ‘teacher’ in the study on learning) and the experimenter. Thus, a carefully constructed artificial setting still allows one to study real psychological variables, perhaps in a more controlled way, but the price one pays is a reduction in external validity.

Sometimes the researcher must assume the role of a stage manager in a theatrical company. The researcher attempts to create the setting that produces the reaction in the participant required by the research question. This may frequently include the use of stage props, as in the Milgram study that used a machine to administer (bogus) electric shock to the ‘learner.’ The role of stage manager should not be underestimated. Social psychology experiments frequently are criticized for being low in external validity, but a study that engages the participant in the task is high in another important feature–mundane realism (see Aronson et al. 1985 for a discussion of validity and mundane realism).

Some research questions can be studied in a relatively simple setting. For instance, research investigating people’s facial reactions to disturbing photographs would need a means for displaying the pictures (a slide projector, a computer, a photo album), so an appropriately lit room would be a sufficient setting.

2.2 Tools For The Manipulation

One of the defining features of an experiment is that it includes a manipulation, also known as an independent variable. The goal is to create at least two conditions that differ only on the particular feature that is manipulated. Random assignment to condition facilitates this goal.

Laboratory equipment may be needed to conduct the manipulation. For instance, in work on eyewitness identification the research question may require that the composition of the lineup be varied to include foils that are either high in physical similarity to the suspect or low in physical similarity. Thus, if the researcher uses a photolineup, then the lab should include a broad range of photographs so that many different lineups could be constructed.

A computer can be useful in carrying out experimental manipulations. For instance, if the manipulation requires varying the duration a stimulus is presented, then the computer can be used to control such durations. Experimental stimuli may involve presentation of video or animation, and a computer can facilitate the creation, editing, and presentation of such material.

Sometimes the manipulation requires the use of drugs. For instance, research on arousal may require the participant in one condition to receive a dose of epinephrine whereas a participant in another condition to receive a dose of a neutral, saline solution. Such research requires equipment necessary to store and administer the drugs, and in some cases appropriate medical professionals on site.

2.3 Measurement Devices

An important feature of empirical work is that something is measured. Even qualitative research has measurement, such as the recording of a narrative. The lab must include the tools necessary to make such measurements.

Standard measurement devices include an audio recorder, a video recorder, a computer with interactive software, and pencils for participants to write responses. For some research questions it is necessary to measure the electrophysiology of the brain or autonomic nervous system, which requires specialized equipment to make the recordings, as well as to store and analyze samples (e.g., measurement of cortisol level).

Some research questions require the use of standardized scales (such as personality tests, intelligence tests, scales to measure depression). Some of these scales are copyrighted, so researchers must contact the developers of the scale for permission to use. Again, which scales are needed in the lab depend on the research question. If the research question involves examining the relation between intelligence and aggressive behavior, then scales to assess intelligence would need to be on hand.

3. Managing A Lab

Much like large offices, some experimental labs may require a lab manager to handle the day-to-day functioning of the lab. The manager’s tasks include scheduling the use of lab resources, monitoring research budgets, and staying abreast of manuscript and grant proposal deadlines. Sometimes a lab requires more specialized personnel, such as when electrophysiological recording equipment is used. Lab personnel also handle maintenance of lab equipment.

4. Summary

New researchers frequently ask, ‘What kind of equipment should I include in my lab?’ As argued in this research paper, one should reply with the following questions: What is your research question? What setting do you need to create to conduct your research? What equipment do you need to conduct your manipulations? What equipment do you need to make your measurements? How will you handle the mundane chores in your lab?

5. Further Reading

For details on how to conduct experiments and an explanation of experimental methodology see Aronson et al. (1992). For an explanation of how to analyze data from an experiment see Keppel (1982). For suggestions on how to write an article describing empirical work in social psychology see Bem (1986) and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (see http://www.apa.org).


  1. Aronson E, Brewer M, Carlsmith J M 1985 Experimentation in social psychology. In: Lindzy G, Aronson E (eds.) Handbook of Social Psychology, 3rd edn. Random House, New York, Vol. 1, pp. 441–86
  2. Aronson E, Ellsworth P, Carlsmith J M, Gonzales M 1992 Methods of Research in Social Psychology. Random House, New York
  3. Bem D J 1986 Writing the empirical journal article. In: Zanna M, Darley J (eds.) The Compleat Academic: A Practical Guide for the Beginning Social Scientist. Random House, New York, pp. 171–201
  4. Keppel G 1982 Design and Analysis: A Researcher’s Handbook. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ
  5. Milgram S 1975 Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. Harper & Row, New York
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