Experimental Realism

Experimental Realism Definition

Experimental realism is the extent to which situations created in social psychology experiments are real and impactful to participants.

Experimental Realism Background

Experimental RealismThe concept of experimental realism was developed in response to criticism that most social psychology experiments take place in artificial laboratory settings and thus are invalid for examining how people truly think and act. In 1968, Elliot Aronson and J. Merrill Carlsmith addressed this concern by distinguishing between reality created in experimental situations and reality encountered outside of the laboratory. They argued that experimental situations that are sufficiently engrossing to participants can elicit psychological states of interest regardless of how similar the experimental events are to everyday events.

Experimental Realism Versus Mundane Realism

Aronson and Carlsmith distinguished between experimental realism and mundane realism. Experimental realism refers to the extent to which participants experience the experimental situation as intended. Mundane realism refers to the extent to which the experimental situation is similar to situations people are likely to encounter outside of the laboratory. Social psychologists are generally more concerned with experimental realism than with mundane realism in their research because participants must find the situation attention-grabbing and convincing in order for the experiment to elicit targeted sets of beliefs, motives, and affective states necessary to test the research hypothesis. A study that accomplishes this can provide much important insight, independent of how much mundane realism it possesses.

For instance, in Stanley Milgram’s classic investigation of obedience, participants were instructed to administer a series of electric shocks to an unseen confederate (though no shocks were actually delivered). As part of a supposed learning study, participants acted as “teachers” and were instructed by the experimenter to administer shocks of increasing intensity for every wrong response offered by the confederate. The events of this study were highly artificial; it is certainly far from normal to administer shocks to another human being under the instruction of an experimental psychologist. Yet, rather than questioning the reality of the situation, participants became extremely invested in it. Because participants took the experimental reality seriously, they responded naturally, shuddering and laughing nervously as they obeyed and administered increasing levels of shock. Due to the high impact of this study, an otherwise sterile laboratory setting was transformed into a legitimate testing-ground for examining human obedience.

The Importance of Experimental Realism

Experimental realism is of central importance to experimental social psychology. To capture the essence of important social psychological phenomena within laboratory settings, it is often necessary to use deception to construct events that seem real, nontrivial, and impactful to participants, within the bounds of ethical considerations. When this is accomplished, participants are unlikely to be suspicious of deceptive tactics in experiments, allowing researchers to investigate the psychological variables they want to study.


  • Aronson, E., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1968). Experimentation in social psychology. In G. Lindzey & E. Aronson (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (2nd ed., Vol. 2, pp. 1-79). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.