Orne, M.T., & Whitehouse, W.G. Demand characteristics. This encyclopedia entry was submitted for publication to appear in Encyclopedia of psychology, A.E. Kazdin (Ed.), published by the American Psychological Association and Oxford Press. Reference for the published entry is: Orne, M.T., & Whitehouse, W.G. Demand characteristics. In A.E. Kazdin (Ed.), Encyclopedia of psychology. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association and Oxford Press, 2000. Pp. 469-470.


Demand Characteristics

Martin T. Orne and Wayne G. Whitehouse

University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

Chapter to appear in A.E. Kazdin (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Psychology,

Washington, DC: American Psychological Association

and Oxford University Press

Demand Characteristics

"Demand characteristics" refer to the totality of cues and mutual role expectations that inhere in a social context, (e.g., a psychological experiment or therapy situation), which serve to influence the behavior and/or self-reported experiences of the research participant or patient. The term was adapted by the first author (1959, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58, 277-299) from a related concept -- "Aufforderungscharaktere," which refers to the "demand value" that the psychological environment exerts upon the behavior of an individual -- derived from Kurt Lewin's (A Dynamic Theory of Personality: Selected Papers, New York, 1935) field-theoretical analysis of personality. The behavioral impact of the demand characteristics of a given situation will vary with the extent to which they are perceived, as well as with the motivation and ability of the person to comply.

Scientific experiments seek to explain phenomena (represented by systematic differences in some dependent variable or DV) by expressly manipulating the hypothesized causal variable (i.e., independent variable or IV) while holding constant or equating any other potential contributory conditions. If variation in the IV produces corresponding changes in the DV to an extent that is probablistically greater than the natural, random variation of the DV in the population, then a causal relation can be inferred. Unfortunately, the experimental method may be compromised when the subject of investigation is a sentient, reasoning organism, capable of perceiving (or misperceiving) the purpose of the research. The usual prescription for identifying causation is inadequate, due to the investigator's inability to control the degree to which the participant's behavior may be contaminated by expectations and responsiveness to situational cues relevant (or irrelevant) to the experimental hypothesis.

In a research context, a volunteer enters into a social contract with the investigator to assume the role of "subject" for the purpose of advancing scientific knowledge. Under these circumstances, the behavioral scientist is likely to elicit behaviors that are not typical for the participants under investigation. We have observed, for example, that research volunteers are willing to perform clearly meaningless tasks for several hours -- such as completing successive sheets of 224 addition problems, only to follow instructions to tear up each sheet before proceeding to the next! When queried by an independent investigator about their perceptions of the purpose of the study, participants invariably impute considerable meaning to their endeavors, viewing their activities as a test of endurance or something similar.

The demand characteristics of an experiment can be subtle -- personnel in white laboratory coats, the reputation of the senior investigator, the wording of informed consent documents, as well as the expectation that one's participation will contribute toward the understanding of an important scientific problem. Nevertheless, they can affect not only the external validity (i.e., generalizability beyond the laboratory) of an investigation, but its internal validity as well (i.e., how confident one can be that the IV was uniquely responsible for the observed changes in the DV). The use of quasi-control procedures, such as a postexperimental inquiry carried out by a second investigator who is unaware of the assigned experimental condition and corresponding performance of the participant, is one way of detecting the contribution of demand characteristics in social and behavioral research (See ARTIFACT: ARTIFACT IN RESEARCH).

Although generally regarded as artifact by the scientific community, demand characteristics remain a potent, and often unrecognized, source for therapeutic change in the clinical context. Rather than relegating demand characteristics to the realm of artifact, they should be acknowledged as a pervasive influence upon all human interaction. Both researchers and clinicians can benefit from determining what meaning an individual attributes to the totality of cues in any given situation.



Orne, M.T. (1962). On the social psychology of the psychological experiment: With particular reference to demand characteristics and their implications. American Psychologist, 17, 776-783. Outlines the potential contribution of demand characteristics to experimental outcomes in psychological research.

Orne, M.T. (1969). Demand characteristics and the concept of quasi-controls. In R. Rosenthal & R. Rosnow (Eds.), Artifact in Behavioral Research (pp. 143-179). New York: Academic Press. Discusses the role of demand characteristics in psychological research as well as methods for detecting their presence.

Orne, M.T., & Bauer-Manley, N.K. (1991). Disorders of self: Myths, metaphors, and demand characteristics of treatment. In J. Strauss & G. R. Goethals (Eds.), The Self: Interdisciplinary Approaches (pp. 93-106). New York: Springer-Verlag. Articulates the often unrecognized role of demand characteristics in the context of psychotherapy.

Rosnow, R.L., & Rosenthal, R. (1997). People Studying People: Artifacts and Ethics in Behavioral Research. New York: W.H. Freeman. Provides a concise and contemporary overview of artifacts in behavioral research.

Martin T. Orne, M.D., Ph.D.

Professor Emeritus

Department of Psychiatry

University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine


Wayne G. Whitehouse, Ph.D.

Research Associate

Department of Psychiatry

University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

The preceding paper is a reproduction of an encyclopdia entry submitted to APA/Oxford Press which was ultimately published as Orne, M.T., & Whitehouse, W.G. Demand characteristics. In A.E. Kazdin (Ed.), Encyclopedia of psychology. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association and Oxford Press, 2000. Pp. 469-470. © 2000 American Psychological Association (http://www.apa.org/books/4600100.html) and Oxford Press. The above reproduction may not exactly replicate the final version published in the APA /Oxford Press book.