Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

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

Abstract

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1

Notes

  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.

References

  1. Bernstein, D. M., Laney, C., Morris, E. K., & Loftus, E. F. (2005a). False memories about food can lead to food avoidance. Social Cognition, 23, 10–33.

  2. Bernstein, D. M., Laney, C., Morris, E. K., & Loftus, E. F. (2005b). False beliefs about fattening foods can have healthy consequences. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 102, 13724–13731.

  3. Bjorklund, D. F., Cassel, W. S., Bjorklund, B. R., Brown, R. D., Park, C. L., et al., (2000). Social demand characteristics in children’s and adults’ eyewitness memory and suggestibility: the effects of different interviews on free recall and recognition. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 14, 421–433.

  4. Bryant, R. A., & Mallard, D. (2005). Reality monitoring in hypnosis: a real-simulating analysis. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 53, 13–25.

  5. Bryant, R. A., Barnier, A. J., Mallard, D., & Tibbits, R. (1999). Posthypnotic amnesia for material learned before hypnosis. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 47, 46–64.

  6. Garry, M., Manning, C. G., Loftus, E. F., & Sherman, S. J. (1996). Imagination inflation: imagining a childhood event inflates confidence that it occurred. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 3, 208–214.

  7. Hyman, I. E. Jr, Husband, T. H., & Billings, F. J. (1995). False memories of childhood experiences. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 9, 181–197.

  8. Lampinen, J. M., Neuschatz, J. M., & Payne, D. G. (1999). Source attributions and false memories: a test of the demand characteristics account. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 6, 130–135.

  9. Laney, C. (2006). Emotional content of true and false memories. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of California, Irivine.

  10. Lindsay, D. S. (1990). Misleading suggestions can impair eyewitnesses’ ability to remember event details. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 16, 1077–1083.

  11. Loftus, E. F., & Pickrell, J. E. (1995). The formation of false memories. Psychiatric Annals, 25, 720–725.

  12. Loftus, E. F., Miller, D. G., & Burns, H. J. (1978). Semantic integration of verbal information into a visual memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 4, 19–31.

  13. MacLeod, C. M. (1999). The item and list methods of directed forgetting: test differences and the role of demand characteristics. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 6, 123–129.

  14. Morris, E. K., Laney, C., Bernstein, D. M., & Loftus, E. F. (2006). Susceptibility to memory distortion: how do we decide it has occurred? American Journal of Psychology, 119, 255–276.

  15. Nisbett, R., & Wilson, T. (1977). Telling more than we can know: verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84, 231–259.

  16. Orne, M. T. (1959). The nature of hypnosis: artifact and essence. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 277–299.

  17. Orne, M. T. (1962). On the social psychology of the psychological experiment: with particular reference to demand characteristics and their implications. American Psychologist, 17, 776–783.

  18. Orne, M. T. (1979). On the simulating subjects as a quasi-control group in hypnosis research: What, why, and how. In: E. Fromm, & R. E. Shor (Eds.), Hypnosis: Developments in Research and New Perspectives, 2nd edn (pp. 519–565). Chicago: Aldine.

  19. Page, M. M., & Scheidt, R. J. (1971). The elusive weapons effect: demand awareness, valuation apprehension, and slightly sophisticated subjects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 20, 304–318.

  20. Wade, K. A., Garry, M., Read, J. D., & Lindsay, D. S. (2002). A picture is worth a thousand lies: using false photographs to create false childhood memories. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 9, 597–603.

  21. Weinberg, H. I., Wadsworth, J., & Baron, R. S. (1983). Demand and the impact of leading questions on eyewitness testimony. Memory & Cognition, 11, 101–104.

Download references

Acknowledgment

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.

Author information

Correspondence to Cara Laney.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

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

Download citation

Keywords

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