ASSOCIATION EXPERIMENT IN COMMUNICATION RESEARCH
Published: Collected research articles, Bulletin of Russian Communication Association "THEORY OF COMMUNICATION AND APPLIED COMMUNICATION", Issue 1 / Edited by I.N. Rozina, Rostov-on-Don: Institute of Management, Business and Law Publishing, 2002. - 168 p. P. 21-28.
The article presents an outline of historical and methodological relation between psychology and communication studies, particularly, in the origin and development of experimental approach. Special attention is given to the method of association tests which helps to reveal stereotypical views common for a communicative group and likely to be connected with cultural influences. An experiment conducted by the author is described in which 314 Russian and 182 American university student participated and the results obtained for two countries about a concrete issue of the international policy are compared. Conclusions are made about the connection between the revealed differences and the strategies of persuasion applied by Russian and American media during the relevant period.
The relation between two areas of human studies - psychology and communication theory is obvious. Psychology, a comparatively new science, originated a little over a century ago: the first psychological laboratory was established in Leipzig in 1879 by Wilhelm Wundt who was not only a psychologist but also a philosopher. Until the 1920-s scientists were mainly involved in introspection, i.e. self-examination and analysis of their own mental processes and emotional states. In the 1920-s empirical approaches brought about by the ideas of behaviorism took over in foreign, particularly American, psychology which was then defined as the study of observable behavior. Scientists believed that one could not observe a feeling or a thought but it was quite possible to see how people responded to external stimuli by changing their behavior. A great role in the shift of interest of western researchers to the study of stimuli and responses was played by the theory of conditioned reflexes by Russian academician I.P. Pavlov who, as well as L.S. Vygotski and A.R. Luria, is one of the most frequently cited authors in human research today.
Unfortunately, one can mainly speak of foreign psychology of that period because Soviet psychology lived under the press of ideological dogmas and was struggling for its independent development. Dialectical materialism was considered "the only correct basis for the development of scientific psychology" (МСЭ 1959 V. 7. P. 703). Today many Russian scientists would agree that "Overestimation of the role of ideology can narrow down methodological foundations of a science and ultimately, lead to the distortion of the research results" (Конецкая 1997. P. 274).
In the 1960-s, the interest of foreign psychologists in the study of mental processes was revitalized. Scientists tried to understand how a human mind was processing and retaining information, which, undoubtedly, was connected with the development of information technologies and attempts to simulate the work of human intellect. Today psychological research is often divided into Biological approach (based on interaction of psychology with physiology and biochemistry), Behavioral approach (studies human behavior in various circumstances), Cognitive approach (simulates mental processes), Psychoanalytical approach (develops the traditions of S. Freud and his followers), and Social-cultural approach (studies the behavior of groups of people in its relation to culture).
The area of communicative research is even younger than psychology: it formed an independent area of study in the 1960-70-s when, after Illinois in 1947 and Stanford in 1955, most American universities opened the departments of communication and started to intensify and expand their courses as well as their research (Neulip, 1996. P. 9). Specialists that formed the basis of communication departments came from anthropology, sociology, psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and logic. A significant contribution was made by philologists who had been developing traditions of classical rhetoric since 1914 within the National Association of Public Speech. However, it is impossible to reduce communication to linguistics or philology because it studies various, not just verbal, means of transmitting information in various communicative contexts (the Internet, mass media, advertising, etc.), in which peculiarities of the audience and non-verbal means play no less important role than traditional forms of speech interaction used by humankind since times immemorial.
Connection of communication studies with psychology is determined not only by the fact that many communication scholars have psychological background but also by research methods initially developed in psychology for studying cognition and behavior and now broadly used in communication research. However, while psychology studies behavior and mental processes, irregardless of interaction with other people or the use of symbolic systems, communication science is defined as an area of research into human interactive behavior directed at other people and based on the use of symbols.
Here are just a few definitions of communication out of 125 registered in 1976 (Neulip 1996. P.2):
- Communication is a transaction among symbol users;
- Communication occurs when two or more people interact through the exchange of messages;
- Communication is the act of sharing symbols;
- Communication is symbolic interaction aimed at informing other people or changing their behavior.
According to the Dictionary of Linguistic Terms by O.S. Akhmanova, communication is "a message or transmission of a certain mental content with the help of a language" (Akhmanova 1966. P. 200).
As one can see, the key words of the definitions above (symbol, language, interaction, message, informing) clearly determine a specific object of communication research. However, since communication is inseparably connected with behavior and cognition (the key words above are behavior and mental), there is a lot in common between communication and psychology as two independent areas of research, particularly, in methods they use.
Research methods in psychology are often divided into descriptive, correlational and experimental (Myers, 1996). Some authors classify them into more types (Bowers, Courtright, 1984):
- descriptive (they define, order or categorize variables without asserting relationships among them);
- case studies (they involve careful observation without interference of a researcher);
- ethnographic (unlike the previous types, there is no preconception about the results);
- experimental (they presuppose manipulation of variables);
- quasi-experimental (they use variables which are impossible or hard to manipulate).
Experimental and quasi-experimental methods are still most popular because they permit to verify hypothetical assumptions. However, since both psychological and communication studies deal with people, special rules called ethical principles of experimenting on people were developed in the academic world and adopted in 1992 by the American Psychological Association and in 1993 - by the British Psychological Society (Myers, 1996). According to these principles, it is necessary to:
- obtain the consent of potential participants who are informed about the character of the experiment;
- protect them from discomfort and possible harm;
- avoid unclear, ambiguous and insulting questions and soften the wording as much as possible;
avoid evaluating the respondent or sounding judgmental;
- treat all the information about individual participants confidentially;
- fully explain the essence of the research after the experiment.
Most American universities have established ethics committees that safeguard participants' wellbeing. Every researcher is obliged to present into such a committee complete descriptions of the whole of the project and the planned experiment if they want to have access to potential participants (those are often volunteer students).
A more general question often arises: do the researcher's own personality and preliminary hypothesis influence the experimental results? Most authors admit that they do, because the researcher's value judgements determine the topic of the investigation, his/her theoretical assumptions and the interpretation of results. Besides, due to ethical requirements, the experimentator has to familiarize the participants, if only in general terms, with the aims of the work, which makes an unbiased result very unlikely. The way a question is asked often effects the answer, i.e. the question itself imposes the answer which is expected by the researcher. In that case, not only variables are manipulated, which is inevitable in an experiment, but the respondent's mind is manipulated too. The backwash of the experiment on the further way of thinking and behavior of the respondents cannot be avoided either, because the experiment makes them notice the topics which they could have been overlooking before.
In spite of all these considerations, American communication science is, to a great extent, empirical, i.e. actively relying on observing and experimenting on the communicative behavior of representative samples of respondents. Communication theory has gone far away from philosophy that often imposes its reflective and speculative character on other areas of human research. In an empirical context, not a single researcher or even a student writing their course paper can make a claim without referring to a source or their own findings because they can always be asked: "How do you know?" A sample of respondents may not be representative enough, or experimental conditions may be limited, or a result may be imprecise or refutable in an expanding experimental field. Nevertheless, for the development of objective communicative research in Russia, compulsory academic course on research methods in human sciences should be introduced in relevant universities, more attention should be given to accurate organization of observation and experiment, and students should be warned against excessive self-reflection and ungrounded conclusions.
One type of experiments in human sciences is a survey that can be conducted in the form of an interview or questionnaire. Surveys are necessary for revealing communicative characteristics of a group of people who have the same age, gender, ethnic culture and/or language, profession, social status, education or any other features. These methods of data collection and processing are also used in sociology and sociolinguistics (Belikov, Krysin, 2001).
A survey with a long history in psychology is an association experiment, i.e. the experiment based on verbal associations of respondents. There are four types of association experiments: paired associations, serial learning, verbal discrimination, and free recall (Experimental Psychology 1972). Association experiments are often called tests, and they can be formal or informal. Verbal association tests help to obtain information about the attitude of a respondent to certain phenomena or concepts named by the words of the respondent's native language. A typical procedure is as follows: participants are asked to respond to a stimulus with the words that the stimulus evokes in their mind. According to (Experimental Psychology, 1972), the experimental parameters, such as singe/multiple response and free/controlled character of associations, are combined differently depending on the aims of the investigation. Various combinations of these parameters yield the following types of associations:
1) single-response free association (a verbal or non-verbal stimulus is presented to a respondent who is asked to say or write the first word that comes to his/her mind);
2) single-response controlled association (is different from the previous type in that the respondent is required to give a response of some given type);
3) multiple-response free association (the respondent is not restricted in the number of responses but may give as many as come to his/her mind);
4) multiple-response controlled association (the same as in the previous type but with the instructions setting limits on the kinds of responses that are acceptable).
After the experiment the researcher can do the following:
- analyze the distribution of associations to stimuli;
- reveal the conditions that influence the distribution;
- study the form and structure of associations;
- classify the associations according to their form and structure.
Many years of the existence of association tests show that only a small number of associations are unique, most responses are typical. Calculation of the results must reveal frequency for every association. The most frequent responses are called the cultural primaries, the unique ones are called idiosyncratic responses (Experimental Psychology, 1972). It is known that respondents give the most typical responses under time pressure or, more precisely, when they do not have time for thinking. On the contrary, the increase of time leads to more variety in responses and brings about more unusual or even unique associations. It is also known that a certain number of responses are faulty - they do not meet the conditions of the experiment due to a lack of attention on the part of respondents or some other reasons. Besides, emotionally laden stimuli give a greater number of faulty responses. Typical faults are repeating the same association (in multiple-association experiments), repeating a stimulus word instead of producing an association, and a delayed response. In controlled-association tests, respondents sometimes forget what task they have been given and produce the associations that do not meet the restrictions formulated in the task - such responses hamper the processing of experimental data.
Association tests can show individual differences between the respondents as well as sociocultural differences between groups of people, depending on the aims of an experiment. They help to study how the communicative environment, including advertisements, mass media texts, popular culture, ideological propaganda, etc. form a person's associative system, influence a person's view of the world, decrease critical thinking and the ability to resist imposed stereotypes. These issues are dealt with by the theory of persuasion - a branch of communication studies which has rich literature in the United States (see, for example, Larson 1995; Littlejohn, Jabusch 1987; Ross 1990) but is not sufficiently presented in Russian publications.
Within the approach described above, the author of this article has conducted an association test with 314 Russian and 182 American students. A number of universities were involved in several cities of the Unites States and the Russian Federation. Individual differences between the participants (gender, age, ethnicity, academic specialization, etc.), as well as geographic and economic differences between universities within a country, were not taken into account. Universities of New Mexico and California, or Rostov-on-Don and Moscow, could be expected to give different results, as well as the students that belong to different subcultures in their countries. However, the experiment was aimed at the comparison of Russian and American sociocultural influences on the perception of one particular historical issue which was rather topical at the time of the experiment.
The experiment was conducted in April 1999 during the Kosovo crisis in Yugoslavia and the bombing of the Yugoslav targets by the NATO military forces. Students were asked to do the following: "Write in any order 5 to 10 words (nouns) or nominative collocations (noun+noun or adjective+noun) which come to your mind in relation to the situation in Yugoslavia. Try not to think but write what first comes to your mind". No other comments were made. The task was given orally and did not contain such words as "conflict", "crisis" or any emotionally colored words that could impart a certain view of the events. Students were told that their participation was voluntary and anonymous, and no personal data were needed. These data would certainly provide additional sociocultural material for comparisons within and between the two macrocultures. However, as it was said earlier in this article, there is a strict control over conducting such experiments in the USA, and the author would be less likely to have access to the respondents if the responses were expected to contain any confidential information.
The number of responses asked for - between 5 and 10 - is connected with the limited capacity of the short-term memory. This capacity is known to be six plus or minus one item (in our case - a word or a collocation) and depends on the age, intelligence, training and other parameters. In numerous experiments that study this phenomenon, respondents are usually asked to remember and reproduce words, letters, numerals or pictures immediately after their oral or visual demonstration. It is also believed that information retrieval from the long-term memory is also carried out through the short-term memory (Handbook of Research Methods…, 1982). In our experiment, the associations were either stored in a respondent's memory or appeared spontaneously. In any case, the minimal capacity of the short-term memory had to be taken into account in order to stay within the natural limit of individual associations. Number 10 that exceeds a typical capacity of the short-term memory was used in order not to limit the performance of those who were able to produce more associations, for instance, because they had been considering the topic for some time before the experiment.
The number of responses from Russian students was 2746; the number of responses from American students was 1140. Dividing these numbers by the numbers of participants in the two countries, we find out that the average number of the associations produced by a Russians participant was 8,75 while the average number of the associations produced by an American participant was 6,26. The difference can be explained, apart from other possible reasons, by a greater interest of Russians in Yugoslavia due to our economic, historical and cultural bonds with the region.
The experiment described here refers to multiple-response free association tests because the task set a certain limit on the response, namely, that it had to be a noun or a nominative collocation. As it was mentioned before for all such experiments, some responses do not meet the requirements set in the instructions. In our case, the most typical response faults were:
- using long strings of words (глупое начало военных действий, your soul changing or taken from you);
- using predicative units (испытываю ненависть к летчикам, will it move to US territory).
Frequency was calculated both in absolute numbers and in percentage for all the words used in the responses. The percentage of each word was presented in two variations: one shows the percentage of the responses in which the word is used, the other shows what percentage of the respondents used the word. Since the number of the responses produced by individual participants varied, the second percentage is more interesting. From this viewpoint, it is worth comparing the most frequent associations in Russian and American samples.
The first observation is that Russian participants turned out to be more similar in their associations, i.e. a greater part of Russians used the same or similar words than Americans did. For example, the most frequent word смерть was used by 39% of Russians, the second typical association - война - was used by 36% of the respondents and the third most frequent word бомба was used by 31% of Russian participants. Similar distribution for Americans was as follows: war - 26%, ethnic - 22% and death - 21%. Consequently, a greater per cent of Americans had the associations less typical within their own culture. That can be explained by a greater cultural diversity of American students and the society as a whole, as well as by a greater tendency of the American society towards individualism in its various manifestations including the perception of political events.
Ten most frequent nouns registered in the Russian sample were (in the order of diminishing frequency): смерть, война, бомба, страх, беженцы, НАТО, ужас, кровь, убийство, голод. In the American sample, such nouns were: war, ethnic, death, refugees, NATO, bomb, sad, genocide, religion, suffering. As one can see, these lists have a lot in common: five out of the ten nouns listed are similar in the meaning, and though their frequencies are a bit different, they are all within the first ten frequency champions. On the contrary, the following words present the greatest differences:
- голод was used by 14,33% of the Russian participants, while its English equivalents hunger and starvation together were used by less than 4% of the Americans, which is most likely to be connected with the 20th century history of Russia where the wars inevitably caused famine;
- genocide was used by 11% of the Americans and less than 4% of the Russians;
- religion was used by nearly 9% of the Americans and just by one Russian respondent, which makes less than 0,32%;
- ethnic was used by 22% of the Americans and only by 1,59% of the Russian respondents.
The comparative frequencies of the last three words are very important from the viewpoint of the persuasion techniques used by the U.S. mass media in that period. They started forming a public opinion about the events in Yugoslavia long before the bombings by making emphasis on "ethnic cleansing" of the Albanian population "on the religious grounds" and constantly calling the national conflict "the genocide of the Albanian people". For the same reason, the word holocaust got into the first twenty most frequent associations in the American list while it was not used by a single Russian respondent. The use of such words as holocaust and genocide in an expanded meaning is considered a very powerful means of manipulating a public opinion because the policy comparable with the extermination of millions of Jews by the Nazis can never be justified. A metaphorical use of these words instantly paralyzes the opponents, including American politicians and journalists who think differently, for no one in his/her wits will dare justify genocide and holocaust - thus, the governing ideology gets a deadly right to accuse the dissidents of inhumanity. On the other hand, the words бесчеловечность, безбожность, агрессор, агрессия, бойня, беспредел, бессмыслица, варварство, вмешательство, господство were used by many Russian respondents and, as the analysis of their collocations reveals, refer to the actions of the USA and NATO. Also typical were the words брат, братство, братский regarding the Serbs and the word боевики regarding the Albanians. These associations fully agree with the vocabulary and pathos of publications in the Russian mass media. The research described in this article is continued by the analysis of Russian and American media of that period aimed at revealing linguistic and other means they used for forming public opinions in their countries.
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