Subject Bias in Psychology: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:04 Definition of Subject Bias
  • 1:49 Consequences of Subject Bias
  • 3:24 Prevention of Subject Bias
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

In this lesson, you'll learn the definition of subject bias. You'll become familiar with the consequences of subject bias and learn how researchers attempt to prevent it from occurring.

Definition of Subject Bias

Adam Gilbert, a blogger, participated in a two-part experiment where researchers were trying to discover if possession of certain genes was linked to risky behavior. When Gilbert was told that he had this particular genome, it made sense because he had a tendency towards thrill and adventure-seeking behaviors. But when it came time to participate in the second part of the experiment, a gambling game, Gilbert couldn't help but wonder if he was subconsciously trying to act more risky so that he would act in a way he thought the researchers wanted him to act. In other words, Gilbert was afraid that he was engaging in subject bias.

Subject bias, also known as participant bias, is a tendency of participants (subjects) in an experiment to consciously or subconsciously act in a way that they think the experimenter or researcher wants them to act. It often occurs when subjects realize or know the purpose of the study.

You may encounter the term demand characteristics when reading about subject bias. Demand characteristics are the characteristics that the subject or participant perceives the experimenter wants (or 'demands') them to possess. For example, Gilbert perceived that the experimenters wanted him to possess risk-taking behavior while doing the gambling game. Risk-taking behavior would be a demand characteristic in this example.

Social desirability bias is a form of subject bias. This is when subjects change their answers or actions in an experiment because they want to portray themselves in a good light. This often happens in survey or interview studies. An example of this can be seen in an interview study on one's frequency of eating healthily. Participants may report that they choose healthier foods more often than they really do to portray themselves more positively to the researcher.

Consequences of Subject Bias

Unfortunately, subject bias is bad for experiments because it compromises the external validity of the experiment. An experiment's results are externally valid if the results (the dependent variable) are truly due to influence by the independent variables instead of other causal factors. In the case of subject bias, the other causal factor would be study participants trying to act in a way that produces the researcher's desired results.

For example, consider the following fictional scenario:

Thomas James is a researcher. He goes to Lombard's Paper Company and asks the CEO, Jim Foley, if he can do an experiment for one week with the employees of Lombard's Paper Company. He wants to test if having nap pods where employees can take a 20-minute power nap (the independent variable) in a quiet room will increase productivity (the dependent variable) during that week.

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