SOCIAL COGNITION METHODS: MEASURING
IMPLICIT THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS
In social research, as in any other field of science, the use of the scientific method requires that assertions be based on observable phenomena (see chap. 1). Inferences about the causes and processes underlying social behavior must first be grounded in observations that can be recorded and replicated. Research that employs the experimental method involves manipulating some aspect of the physical or social environment, and then observing and recording some type of response on the part of participants in the experimental session. In some studies, the observed response is an overt behavior or action of some kind (e.g., stopping to give help, pressing a button to deliver an electric shock to another person, choosing a gift). More often, however, the observed response is a written or oral report from a participant of his or her reactions to the situation, a judgment, or a decision. Similarly, in survey research involving interviews or questionnaires, the observations consist of respondents' self-reports of their behaviors, feelings, or beliefs. Because inner experiences—personal feelings and mental life—are not directly observable, social researchers must often rely on people's introspective reports of their private experience to acquire data that are amenable to recording and quantification.
Previous chapters raised a number of issues and problems that must be considered in evaluating the validity of self-report measures as accurate assessments of respondents' true feelings and beliefs. When respondents are aware that they are participants in a scientific investigation, evaluation apprehension and social desirability concerns may lead them to censure or adjust their responses to meet personal or social standards or expectations (see chap. 6). In many situations, participants may be unwilling to report on their true feelings or reactions, particularly when embarrassing, sensitive, or politically charged issues are at stake.
Even when respondents are willing to provide truthful and candid accounts, they may be unable to report accurately on their own inner feelings or mental states. For example, Nisbett and Wilson (1977) argued that individuals do not have conscious access to many of the mental processes that underlie their behaviors or decisions, at least not in a manner that they can verbalize or and articulate.