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Utilizing Research on Automatic Stereotype Activation

to Engage Students with Methodological Issues in Social Psychology

Jennifer J. Tickle

St. Mary’s College of Maryland, St. Mary’s City, MD


Methodological concepts are often considered “dry” and “uninteresting” by students, but are critical to understanding psychological science.  This in-class demonstration utilizes primary source research on automatic stereotype activation to enliven an introduction to methodological concepts in social psychology, or to refresh memory for methodological concerns learned elsewhere in the curriculum.  The demonstration involves a mini-reenactment of research followed by a guided discussion that integrates and applies methodological concepts, including confounds, operationalization of variables, experimenter bias, research ethics, statistical results, and the value of conceptual replication.  An assignment that allows students to further apply these concepts is also presented.

Introduction to the Research Study

Bargh, Chen, and Burrows (1996) conducted a creative and easy-to-replicate study that examined whether the activation of a stereotype could influence people’s behavior.  For those not familiar with study 2 in this set of studies, the researchers used a scrambled sentence task to prime either the elderly stereotype or neutral words.  They then surreptitiously measured the length of time that it took people to walk down the hallway after the study.  This study, in short, revealed that activation of the elderly stereotype caused participants in the elderly prime condition to walk more slowly (in line with the content of the stereotype) than participants in the neutral condition.

Classroom Use

This demonstration can be used in:

• Advanced social psychology laboratory courses to refresh methodological concepts

• Introductory research methods or experimental design courses to introduce methodology topics to be discussed in the course

• Introductory social psychology courses to demonstrate the effects of activation of traits or stereotypes on behavior

The demonstration itself takes 15-20 minutes.  The general discussion takes 30-45 minutes. The supplemental discussion of the Bargh, Chen, and Burrows (1996) article takes 30 minutes.

Materials Needed

•   A student confederate and 2 student participants

•   A stopwatch and an index card

•  Demonstration study materials:  a scrambled sentence task (one neutral version and one elderly prime version), 2 copies of the consent form, 2 copies of a mood questionnaire (Likert scales for tired, energetic, etc.)

• A location, approximately 10-15 seconds walking distance away from the classroom, where student participants can complete the experimental tasks and an observer can hide nearby unseen (e.g., two adjacent research laboratory rooms side by side down the hall from the classroom)

•  Copies of both scrambled sentence tasks for all students

•  Copies of Bargh, Chen, and Burrows (1996) for all students

Basic Method

1.  Before class, recruit a student to be a confederate in the study.  Show the confederate the location near the space where the student participant will complete the study tasks and where the confederate will “hide” while the participants complete the task.  The confederate’s role is to time, using a stopwatch, the length of time it takes each of the participants to walk from the room where she completes the tasks back to the classroom.  Be sure that the confederate knows exactly when to begin timing and when to stop timing so that the measurement is consistent.  The times are recorded on an index card and brought back to class.

The confederate will leave the classroom approximately 15 seconds after the instructor leaves the classroom to escort the first student participant to the task location.  The confederate will remain hidden until after the second participant completes the task and re-enters the classroom.  Then, the confederate will return to class with the index card and data.  The confederate should be instructed not to reveal her role until instructed.

2.  The demonstration:

a.  Two volunteers are requested.  One volunteer will be asked to leave the classroom and wait outside.

b.    The first volunteer will be asked to come to the front of the classroom to be a participant in a study of language proficiency.  The participant will be greeted, formally, by the experimenter/instructor and given a generic consent form to read and sign.  The participant is then told that the study examines language proficiency and that the research task involves unscrambling words to make complete sentences.  The task is fully described, the participant is asked if she has any questions, and then the participant is guided to the room down the hall to complete the scrambled sentence task in quiet.  The first participant receives the elderly prime version of the scrambled sentence task.  When the student returns, the scrambled sentence task is collected, and she is asked to complete a short mood questionnaire.  When that is complete, the student is thanked for her participation and is told she will be debriefed shortly.

c.  The second participant who has been waiting in the hallway is asked to re-enter the classroom.  Rather than formally greeting the second participant, the experimenter/instructor modifies the instructions so that a “speed” instruction is given.  This can be done in a variety of ways, but one suggestion is to pretend that the demonstration is taking longer than expected and to ask the student, before you leave the classroom to escort them to the second room, to try to complete the task as quickly as possible so that the class can move on.  Another more extreme suggestion (depending on how obvious you want the lack of experimental control to be) is to pretend to be a fellow student experimenter that “knows” the participant, thank him/her for introducing you to Joe/Mary at the party last night, indicate that you are in a hurry to leave the lab because you are meeting Joe/Mary for coffee and you want to change clothes first, and ask them to hurry.   The participant is escorted to the location to complete the neutral version of the scrambled sentence task, returns to the classroom and completes the mood questions, and

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