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The Red Herring technique: a methodological response to the problem of demand characteristics


In past research, we planted false memories for food related childhood events using a simple false feedback procedure. Some critics have worried that our findings may be due to demand characteristics. In the present studies, we developed a novel procedure designed to reduce the influence of demand characteristics by providing an alternate magnet for subjects’ natural suspicions. We used two separate levels of deception. In addition to giving subjects a typical untrue rationale for the study (i.e., normal deceptive cover story), we built in strong indicators (the “Red Herring”) that the study actually had another purpose. Later, we told subjects that we had deceived them, and asked what they believed the “real purpose” of the study was. We also interviewed a subset of subjects in depth in order to analyze their subjective experiences of the procedure and any relevant demand. Our Red Herring successfully tricked subjects, and left little worry that our false memory results were due to demand. This “double cross” technique may have widespread uses in psychological research that hopes to conceal its real hypotheses from experimental subjects.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    All participant responses are direct quotations.

  2. 2.

     We cannot say why the control condition increased significantly, except that due to an error of random assignment the two groups were not equivalent before the manipulation, t(76.0) = 2.15, P = 0.03, and there seems to have been a floor effect prior to the manipulation for the control group (such that their confidence had nowhere to go but up). Adjustments have been made to the degrees of freedom because of unequal variance in this and other calculations throughout this paper.

  3. 3.

     Adjustments have been made to the degrees of freedom because of unequal variance in this and other calculations throughout this paper.

  4. 4.

    Disagreement and Suspicion coding were done independently, such that a participant labeled “Disagree” may have been Suspicious or Non-suspicious, and vice versa.

  5. 5.

    Of the nine Suspicious participants, just three (33%) were also classified as Disagree participants. Fifteen of the Non-suspicious participants (47%) were classified as Disagrees.


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This work was partially supported by the Grawemeyer Prize in Psychology, awarded to Elizabeth Loftus. In addition, we would like to thank the other members of the “Memory & Law” seminar at the University of California, Irvine where the Red Herring idea first took shape.

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Correspondence to Cara Laney.

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Laney, C., Kaasa, S.O., Morris, E.K. et al. The Red Herring technique: a methodological response to the problem of demand characteristics. Psychological Research 72, 362–375 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-007-0122-6

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  • False Memory
  • Confidence Rating
  • Cover Story
  • Demand Characteristic
  • True Purpose