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Experimental Psychology

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Experimentation using a Confederate



Confederates, or research actors, are commonly employed in psychology experiments to secretly participate along with actual subjects.

By using confederates, researchers study participants in complex social settings and reliably capture naïve reactions.

Through the incorporation of confederates, this video demonstrates how to design, perform, analyze, and interpret an experiment where non-conscious mimicry is reliably measured.

In this case, researchers manipulate the experimental setting to test whether a participant is more likely to mimic a person with greater social power versus a person with similar power.

This experiment uses a two-group design with a critical element: a hired actor or confederate. The confederate acts according to the researcher’s directions, which allows for secret observations.

Subjects think that they are observing other participants’ behaviors as they work on math problems through a one-way mirror. In actuality, the researcher is interested in whether or not the subjects subsequently mimic behaviors acted out by the confederate as he works on each math problem.

Half of the student participants are told that the confederate is in a more powerful position as a head residence hall assistant, whereas the other half are told that the confederate is equal in power as a regular student.

The participants are then asked to score the questions that they think the confederate got right or wrong. At the same time participants are scoring each problem, the researcher observes them and tallies the dependent variable—the number of behaviors mimicked.

If the perceived status of the confederate influences the participants’ responses, those who believe the confederate had higher power will mimic a greater number of behaviors than those who believe the confederate has equal power.

To conduct the experiment, you will need: informed consent and final debriefing papers, pens, a sheet of GRE-level math problems, a one-way mirror for observation, and a chart of behaviors to tally.

To begin the experiment, meet the participant in the lab. Guide all participants through the consent process and discuss the overall plan for the session.

Lead the participant into the window side of the room with a one-way mirror. State that they will be viewing another participant on the mirrored side as they complete GRE-level math problems. Convey to the participant that they need to carefully remember behaviors performed by the other participant.

While the participant is waiting in the room for someone to appear on the other side, meet the confederate actor. Instruct them to respectively engage in the following seven key behaviors in order with seven math problems: playing with their hair, putting a pen in their mouth, tapping their fingers on the desk, touching their face, wrinkling their nose, whistling, and leaning back in the chair.

Now lead the confederate to the chair in front of the mirror-side of the one-way mirror. Provide them with the same informed consent papers and research guidelines so that the participant believes the confederate is indeed another normal participant. Before leaving the room, hand a sheet of math problems to the confederate to complete.

After handing the confederate the sheet of GRE math problems, return to the original participant with a pen and a copy of the math problems. Tell them that the other observed participant is either: (1) a head residence hall assistant on campus, or (2) another normal student participant.

After the confederate leaves the room, instruct the participant to mark questions they think the confederate got correct with a star or incorrect with an X. Simultaneously check whether or not the participant imitates the confederate’s behavior when scoring each question.

At the conclusion of the experiment, debrief participants and explain why deception was necessary for the experiment.

To analyze how confederates influence the outcome, tally the number of behaviors mimicked for each condition.

The data are then graphed by plotting the mean number of behaviors mimicked in each condition. In this experiment, participants who believed the confederate was a Resident Hall Assistant imitated a greater number of behaviors than those who believed the confederate was a student.

Now that you are familiar with how psychology experiments are cleverly implemented with confederates, let’s take a look at how various researchers employ confederates to affect social behaviors.

In a recent study, confederates were used to examine social influences on remembering. A confederate gave participants misinformation that led to incorrect memories being recalled. Thus, the use of confederates shows that memory recall is socially contagious.

In another experiment, confederates were used to examine social cues of attraction. When a male confederate interacted with a female confederate’s baby, women who witnessed the interaction liked him better than when he ignored the baby.

Neuroscientists are interested in how our brains process mimicking the actions of others. Discovering the neurophysiological correlates is critical for understanding perception and mechanisms underlying social cognitive disorders.

You’ve just watched JoVE’s introduction to using confederates in experimental studies. Now you should have a good understanding of how to design and perform the experiment, as well as analyze results and apply the phenomenon.

Thanks for watching! 

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