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Experimental Psychology

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From Theory to Design: The Role of Creativity in Designing Experiments



Creative experimental design is required to take certain theories from the speculative state to the testable state.

Psychology studies originate when a researcher develops a theory regarding human thoughts, emotions, or behaviors. Often this theory is firmly situated in common experiences and may not stimulate direct empirical study.

Concerns, ranging from ethical considerations to empirical control, make the process of designing a study more challenging. In these cases, the researcher must come up with a creative way to indirectly test the question at hand.

This video demonstrates the creative process that occurs when psychologists design experiments to test central tenets. You will learn how to design, conduct, and analyze an experiment that determines whether engaging in a self-expanding activity leads a person to feel a greater sense of self-efficacy, as well as apply the phenomenon to other research concepts.

During this experiment, participants are divided into two groups that engage in different activities. The first group will engage in a self-expanding activity—a task that is novel, challenging, and interesting—which requires creativity on the researcher’s part to meet all three criteria.

In contrast, the second group is asked to engage in a non-self-expanding activity—a task that is familiar, boring, and ordinary.

To distinguish the activities, participants in the first, self-expanding group are asked to transport several objects across a room using only chopsticks, whereas participants in the second, non-self-expanding group are asked to use their hands.

After completing either activity, all participants are given a survey of questions, which measures participants’ levels of self-efficacy—their perception of their ability to successfully complete a series of everyday tasks.

For example, the questions involve everyday challenges, such as getting directions when lost, or dealing with an overcharge from the cell phone company. Participants are asked to rate their ability on a scale of 1 to 7, ranging from not being successful to being very successful, at resolving the problem.

The researchers hypothesize that the group performing the self-expanding activity will have greater feelings of self-efficacy than those who do not.

Before conducting the study, set up a basket in the research lab. Then gather up a ping pong ball, a key, a rubber band, a paper clip, and a pair of chopsticks on a table on the other side of the room.

To begin the experiment, meet the participant at the lab. Provide them with informed consent, a brief description of the research, a sense of the procedure, an indication of potential risks and benefits, and the freedom of withdrawal at any time.

Next, instruct participants in the self-expanding group to use chopsticks and those in the non-self-expanding group to use their hands. Respectively, within a 5 min time period, have them carry objects—one at a time—over to the other side of the room and drop them in the basket.

After the activity is completed, administer the same eight-item measure to all participants and instruct them to rate their levels of self-efficacy.

To conclude the experiment, debrief the participant by telling them the nature of the study, as well as why the true purpose of the study could not be revealed beforehand.

To analyze whether engaging in a self-expanding activity correlates to a greater sense of self-efficacy, average the self-efficacy scores in each group and plot the means across conditions.

To determine if group differences were found, perform a t-test for independent means. Note that the participants in the self-expansion condition reported greater self-efficacy than those in the non-self-expansion condition.

Now that you are familiar with how to creatively take an experiment from the theory to execution stages, let’s take a look at how other researchers manipulate theory-based concepts.

A similar study creatively manipulated self-expansion in married couples to determine if novel, challenging, and interesting activities improved relationship quality. To manipulate self-expansion, the couples carried a foam pillow between them, without using their hands, while moving through an obstacle course.

Those who engaged in the self-expanding activity reported higher relationship quality when compared a no-activity control group.

Another study tested whether people act more nurturing toward cute things. Rather than devising a design to have participants hold cute or ugly babies and test which ones they were more nurturing to, researchers devised an alternative and creative experiment.

They had participants look at pictures of cute versus non-cute animals. Then, they played a game that required them to very carefully remove small pieces from openings that provide a shock when touched.

As predicted, those who viewed the pictures of cute animals were more careful when playing the game than individuals who viewed the non-cute animals.

In a third study, researchers wanted to develop an experiment to improve understanding of social exclusion by examining the patterns of brain activation present during social interactions.

To achieve this, brain activity was measured in real time as participants were subjected to different social exclusion situations through a Cyberball task that the researchers could manipulate through a computer program.

Through this creative experimental design, changes in event-related brain potentials were observed in the midst of different social exclusion circumstances.

You’ve just watched JoVE’s introduction to creatively designing experiments for manipulation of theory-based concepts. The creative solution shown in this video was necessary to adequately meet the required conditions of novelty, challenge, and interest.

As a result, the study design was able to test the self-expansion theory and show that such activities increase self-efficacy. Through a discussion of applications, you were introduced to more examples in which there were critical needs for creative experimental design.

Thanks for watching! 

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