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Communication and laboratory performance in parapsychology experiments: demand characteristics and the social organisation of interaction

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Publication details

JournalBritish Journal of Social Psychology
DatePublished - Sep 2007
Issue number3
Number of pages22
Pages (from-to)477-498
Original languageEnglish


This paper reports findings from a conversation analytic study of experimenter-participant interaction in parapsychology experiments. It shows how properties of communication through which the routine business of the experiment is conducted may have an impact on the research participant's subsequent performance. In this, the study explores social psychological features of the psychology laboratory. In particular, it examines aspects of Orne's (1962) account of what he called the demand characteristics of the psychological experiment. The data come from a corpus of audio recordings of experimenter-participant interaction during experiments on extra-sensory perception. These kinds of experiments, and the phenomena they purport to study, are undoubtedly controversial; however, the paper argues that there are grounds for social psychologists to consider parapsychology experiments as a class (albeit distinctive) of psychology experiments, and, therefore, as sites in which general social psychological and communicative phenomena can be studied. The empirical sections of the paper examine interaction during part of the experimental procedure when the experimenter verbally reviews a record of the participant's imagery reported during an earlier part of the experiment. The analysis shows that the way in which the experimenter acknowledges the research participants' utterances may be significant for the trajectory of the experiment and explores how the participants' subsequent performance in the experiment may be influenced by interactionally generated contingencies.

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