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What Is a Demand Characteristic?

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Definition:

A demand characteristic is a subtle cue that makes participants aware of what the experimenter expects to find or how participants are expected to behave. Demand characteristics can change the outcome of an experiment because participants will often alter their behavior to conform to the experimenters expectations.

In some cases, an experimenter might give off hints or cues that might make the participant believe that a particular outcome or behavior is expected. It is important to note that the participant may or may not be right in their guess. Even if the individual is wrong about the experimenter's intentions, it can have a profound influence on how the participant behaves.

For example, the subject might take it upon themselves to play the role of the "good participant." Instead of behaving as they normally would, these individuals strive to figure out what the experimenter wants and then live up to these expectations. Demand characteristics might also motivate participants to behave in ways that they think are socially desirable (to make themselves look better than they really are) or in ways that are antagonistic to the experimenter (an attempt to throw off the results or mess up the experiment).

Dealing With Demand Characteristics

Researchers typically rely on a number of different strategies to minimize the impact of demand characteristics. Deception is a very common approach. This involves telling participants that the study is looking at one thing when it is really looking at something else altogether. For example, in Asch's conformity experiment, participants were told that they were taking part in a vision experiment. In reality, the researchers were interested in the role that social pressure plays in conformity. By disguising the true intentions of the experiment, researchers are able to minimize the possibility of demand characteristics.

In other cases, researchers will minimize the contact that they have with study subjects. A double-blind study is a method used in which neither the participants or the researchers interacting with them is aware of the condition that the participants have been assigned. Having people who are not aware of the experimenter's hypothesis collect the data from participants helps reduce the chances that the subjects will guess what the study is about.

More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary

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