Social psychological experiments are frequently designed to simultaneously study the effects of more than one independent variable on a dependent variable. Factorial research designs are experimental designs that have two or more independent variables. By using a factorial design, the scientist can study the influence of each variable on the dependent variable (known as the main effects of the variables) as well as how the variables work together to influence the dependent variable (known as the interaction between the variables). Factorial designs sometimes demonstrate the person by situation interaction.
In one such study, Brian Meier and his colleagues (Meier, Robinson, & Wilkowski, 2006) tested the hypothesis that exposure to aggression-related words would increase aggressive responses toward others. Although they did not directly manipulate the social context, they used a technique common in social psychology in which they primed (i.e., activated) thoughts relating to social settings. In their research, half of their participants were randomly assigned to see words relating to aggression and the other half were assigned to view neutral words that did not relate to aggression. The participants in the study also completed a measure of individual differences in agreeableness—a personality variable that assesses the extent to which people see themselves as compassionate, cooperative, and high on other-concern.
Then the research participants completed a task in which they thought they were competing with another student. Participants were told that they should press the space bar on the computer keyboard as soon as they heard a tone over their headphones, and the person who pressed the space bar the fastest would be the winner of the trial. Before the first trial, participants set the intensity of a blast of white noise that would be delivered to the loser of the trial. The participants could choose an intensity ranging from 0 (no noise) to the most aggressive response (10, or 105 decibels). In essence, participants controlled a “weapon” that could be used to blast the opponent with aversive noise, and this setting became the dependent variable. At this point, the experiment ended.
As you can see in Figure 1.15, there was a person-by-situation interaction. Priming with aggression-related words (the situational variable) increased the noise levels selected by participants who were low on agreeableness, but priming did not increase aggression (in fact, it decreased it a bit) for students who were high on agreeableness. In this study, the social situation was important in creating aggression, but it had different effects for different people.