Psychological reactivity: what is it?

The human being is fundamentally a social animal, which makes him adapt his behavior according to the social context in which he finds himself. But the social character of our species is very different from that of other forms of life.

Just as social insects like ants can live in large colonies, they don’t know it: they don’t have the capacity to imagine the concept of “the other” and “oneself”. We, on the other hand, are social not only because we live collectively, but also because we think about the mental states of others. This, however, has a side effect called psychological reactivity..

What is psychological reactivity?

In psychology, reactivity is a concept used to designate the tendency of individuals to change their behavior when they feel someone is watching them. The presence or absence of psychological reactivity causes us to behave in one way or another, whether we are alone or accompanied. In fact, responsiveness may not exist in contexts where we are surrounded by many people, precisely because being in a busy place may make us think that no one is going to notice us. What matters is being aware that someone is looking at us, not so much our physical proximity to other people they might see.

Therefore, it is possible that psychological reactivity appears in times when we are aloneIf we come to believe that there are incorporeal entities watching us, something typical of magical thinking. But this belief does not need to be very firm either; just bringing up a person we want to make a good impression can make us, without realizing it, behave in a way a little more similar to what we would do if that person were really looking at us.

It is this phenomenon that makes, for example, social psychology to study not only the influence that others have on the person, but also the influence that they have on these imaginary entities which are perceived as real or partially. real in the here and now.

that’s why psychological reactivity is a complex phenomenon, Which depends as much on how we perceive our environment as it does on cognitive elements and our imagination. Therefore, it is difficult to control and study, because the imagination plays a role in it, and it cannot be predictably changed from outside the individual.

In addition, responsiveness always contains an intensity scale: changing behavior by reminding a teacher to whom we owe a lot is not the same as doing it knowing that thousands of people are watching us through a camera. of TV. In the second case, the influence of others will be much more noticeable, and will have an impact on almost all of our actions.

Psychological reactivity in research

But if the concept of psychological reactivity serves any purpose, it is for take this into account in research based on the observation of individuals.

One of the tenets of science is the goal of studying natural processes without interfering with them, but psychological reactivity involves strong interference where behavioral researchers try to learn more about the behavior of humans or other animals at the same time. developed nervous system: their mere presence causes individuals to behave. differently than they would if they weren’t the subject of a scientific study, and therefore the results obtained are contaminated.

In psychology, as in any science, it is essential to know how to delineate the type of phenomena that are studied, that is to say to isolate the variables to pay attention to what we want to investigate, and psychological reactivity can produce results that are not representative of those mental or social processes that we are trying to understand better.

That means the presence of psychological reactivity in scientific research threatens its internal validityThat is, in terms of their ability to find results related to the object of study to be studied, and nothing else. For example, if a survey aims to analyze the behavioral patterns of a particular ethnic group when making purchasing decisions, the results obtained might actually reflect how members of that group want to be seen by Westerners. , without the researchers realizing it. .

The Hawthorne effect

The Hawthorne effect is a type of psychological reactivity that occurs when subjects participating in research know they are being observed.

This is the type of psychological reactivity typical of behavioral research., And has different variations, such as the John Henry effect, which occurs when a group of subjects change their behavior by imagining themselves as part of the control group of an experiment, or the Pygmalion effect, in which volunteers from a survey adapt their behavior voluntarily or involuntarily so that the main hypothesis defended by the experimenters is confirmed. This phenomenon is usually preceded by the experimental effect, which occurs when the researchers themselves give clues about their intentions and the outcome they hope to achieve.

How to avoid psychological reactivity in research?

Psychological responsiveness is usually controlled by letting people participating in a study know as little as possible. In social psychology, for example, it is common to hide almost all information about the purpose of studies, and sometimes lies, as long as it does not go against the integrity and dignity of people, and clarify what it is. The experiment after making the observations.

Double-blind studies are among the best designed to prevent the onset of psychological reactivity., Since in them neither the subjects which are under study nor those who carry out the collection of “raw” data on the previous ones know what is the aim of the research, avoiding in this way that the Pygmalion and experimenter effects give. .

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