The role of role playing in organizational research

The role of role playing in organizational research – Special Issue: Yearly Review of Management

Jerald Greenberg

In their classic chapter on research methodology in the second edition of the Handbook of Social Psychology, Aronson and Carlsmith described the role playing study as “an |as-if’ experiment in which the subject is asked to behave as if he [or she] were a particular person in a particular situation” (1968, p. 26). Participants in organizational research have been asked to assume such roles as interviewers (Gorman, Clover, & Doherty, 1978) and performance evaluators (Murphy, Lockhart, & Maguire, 1986), as well as incumbents of such jobs as photographer (Campbell, 1978), supermarket manager (Moore, 1984), and bank officer (Staw & Ross, 1978). Some subjects have been asked to take on even more imaginative roles, such as murderer (Timm, 1982), American hostage in Iran (Stern, Breen, Watanabe, & Perry, 1981), or the captain of Star Trek’s spaceship “Enterprise” (Arnold, 1985).

The present article is designed to review the ways in which role playing has been used as a means of learning about behavior in organizations. We begin by establishing the prevalence of role playing studies in organizational research. After doing so, we will describe the major purposes of such research, and then identify the key dimensions by which they may be characterized. This background will be used as the basis for making recommendations about when and how role playing should be used in organizational research. By focusing On both exemplary studies worthy of being emulated and those investigations that misuse role playing, we hope to elucidate the specific place of role playing studies in organizational research. In so doing, it is our objective to get organizational scholars not only to use role playing appropriately, but also to avoid the mistake of dismissing appropriate role playing studies.

The Prevalence of Role Playing in Organizational Research

Before analyzing role playing methodology, we believe it would be useful to establish the prevalence of role playing studies in the organizational literature. Our goal was to determine how frequently role playing has been used in the literature so as to justify an analysis of its properties.

With this goal in mind, we surveyed the articles appearing in the 1978 through 1988 issues of five widely read journals publishing reports of empirical studies in the fields of industrial/ organizational psychology and organizational behavior: Academy of Management Journal (AMJ), Administrative Science Quarterly (ASQ), Journal of Applied Psychology (JAP), Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (OBHDP; published as Organizational Behavior and Human Performance through 1984), and Personnel Psychology (PP). The criterion we used for identifying a role playing study followed from Aronson and Carlsmith’s (1968) definition. Namely, in the investigations identified as role playing studies, subjects were asked how they would feel or behave, or how another would feel or behave, if they or that other person were in a certain situation. That is, subjects knowingly played the role of a person in a situation not actually encountered. Implicit in this definition is that the evaluation of the research subjects’ thoughts or actions ends with the collection of data. Subjects know that their role ends with the experiment, and that no one will further scrutinize the consequences of their actions.

Omitted from our analyses were 31 studies in which role playing was used in the course of the study (such as for training), but for which role playing responses did not constitute the source of the data (e.g., Earley, 1987; Ivancevich & Smith, 1981). Also not counted as role playing studies were investigations (e.g., Terborg, & Davis, 1982) in which subjects made judgments about situations presented to them that may or may not have been hypothetical, but for which some rationale was given to account for their behavior (e.g., your judgment is going to be used to help recommend a course of action, or to validate a test). Because participants in such studies believed their actions really counted toward some purpose they believed to be true, and because they may have believed that their actions would be further evaluated after the experiment, it cannot be said that they were not responding “as if” something were true, and therefore, they were not role playing. Such a cover story is often false, but enhances the realism of the study – what is commonly known as a “deception” study (Greenberg & Folger, 1988). Interestingly, although role playing is frequently used by those who prefer not to deceive their subjects (indeed, it was offered as an alternative to deception; Greenberg & Folger, 1988), we found several studies in which the investigators asked subjects to play roles, and then deceived them about something relevant to their roles (e.g., Baron, 1988; Ilgen, Mitchell, & Fredrickson, 1981). Although some deception was involved, the subjects in these studies played along knowing their actions or judgments did not really count, and as such, the investigations were counted as role playing studies.

Because some articles contained no empirical research and others contained more than one empirical study, our analysis was based on the number of studies, not articles, published. Specifically, we counted the number of separate role playing studies reported relative to the total number of studies published.(1) The percentage of published studies identified as role playing studies in each of the five journals during each of the eleven years surveyed is shown in Table 1.


These data reveal no discernible disparity in the publication of role playing studies between journals. Note in Table 1 the non-significant values of [X.sup.2] (4) within the rows, revealing relatively equal distributions of role playing studies between the journals for the various years. If any pattern is to be found in these data, it is that the lowest proportion of role playing studies tends to be published in ASQ. Indeed, this was the case for 8 out of the 11 years surveyed. These figures are consistent with more general data for the publication year 1986 revealing that ASQ published fewer laboratory studies of any kind (including role playing studies) than any other journal in the field (Aldag & Stearns, 1988).

Viewed within journals over time, there does not appear to be a consistent trend in the percentage of role playing studies published. Note the nonsignificant values of [X.sup.2] (10) within all the columns except for OBHDP, revealing a relatively equal distribution of role playing studies within most of the journals over the years. Apparently, role playing studies have appeared at a relatively even rate. The exception appears to be the result of the fact that for OBHDP, an unusually high proportion of role playing studies was published in 1985 (approximately one-third of the articles published in OBHDP for that year were role playing studies). Generally speaking, though, it may be concluded that role playing studies have had a steady and regular presence in the organizational literature.

Purposes of Role Playing Studies

Despite the fact that role playing has a formidable history as a tool used to facilitate training in interpersonal skills (e.g., Trower, Bryant, & Argyle, 1977), job skills, (e.g., Ivancevich & Smith, 1981), and psychotherapeutic well-being (e.g., Goldstein & Simonson, 1971), its use as an experimental method has been the subject of considerable debate (Greenberg & Folger, 1988).

For example, whereas Schultz proclaimed that “the best way of investigating the nature of man is to ask him” (1969, p. 227), Freedman countered that role playing studies reveal “what people think they would do, not necessarily what they [actually] would do” (1969, p. 110). At the heart of this criticism is the idea that the technique lacks realism, a key ingredient required to elicit natural, valid research data (Aronson & Carlsmith, 1968). Indeed, no matter how involving a simulation study may be, its participants are still aware that they are not “playing for keeps.” Still, proponents of the role playing method argue that realism can be seriously approached in highly elaborate role playing studies. Zimbardo’s classic study in which subjects played the roles of guards and prisoners in a simulated prison is a good example (Haney, Banks, & Zimbardo, 1973). Although the participants in this study knew all along that they were playing roles, it was highly involving and elicited very real reactions from participants (Mixon, 1976).

Importantly, it need not be argued that there exists any correspondence between what people say they would do and what they actually do for there to be any value to role playing data. The value of role playing studies lies not in assuming that people really would do what they say, but in learning what they say they would do. The mere expression of intended behavior can reveal a great deal about people’s beliefs regarding the norms that regulate behavior (Harrruma & Secord, 1972). Learning about the perceived roles and rules that regulate behavior is a potentially valuable source of information that can be used to understand naturally observed social phenomena. By asking research participants to play themselves or another, it has been argued (Hendrick, 1977), we can learn a great deal about the way social rules are perceived. This is a legitimate purpose for research in and of itself. However, our review of the literature suggests that in the case of organizational research, this purpose is rarely pursued. Instead, among investigators interested in organizational behavior two major purposes for role playing research may be identified: (a) describing the attitudes and/or behaviors of people in an organizational setting, and (b) examining the basic human processes of perception, judgment, or cognition.

To Learn About Attitudes and Behavior in an Organizational Context

A key goal of organizational researchers is to learn about the behavior of individuals in various work contexts. For example, role playing studies have been used to provide insight into such organizational contexts as: the evaluation of job applicants Mayfield, Brown, & Hamstra, 1980), performance appraisal (Brown & Mitchell, 1986) and subordinate influence (Simms & Manz, 1984).

Unfortunately, it is all too often the case that researchers appear to have lost sight of the epistemological value of their data. Indeed, there are several instances in which investigators have described their research evidence in a manner suggesting that they found more than they really did. For example, Rosen, Jerdee, and Lunn, (1981) had students recommend retirement decisions for hypothetical employees presented to them as differing with respect to their age, performance level, and the appraisal form used. In describing their findings, they indicated that “retirement decisions are unlikely to pose difficulties when employees are performing their job well” (p. 518). Given the role playing method used, it may be argued that this statement is unjustified.

The same criticism applies as well to another study. In discussing their undergraduates’ reactions to hypothetical job applicants whose photos and resumes they looked at, Heilman and Saruwatari said, “an applicant’s appearance clearly can have impact on the impression he or she makes on personnel evaluators” (1979, p. 370). Although the authors then go on to justify their use of college students as subjects, the real problem lies in their interest in generalizing to “personnel evaluators.” It is important to appreciate people’s understanding of the norms governing worker retirement and physical attractiveness as an attribute, and these studies have made a useful contribution in this regard. However, we believe the authors should focus on this contribution rather than inappropriately claim what is likely to occur in the actual situations that were being portrayed.

In this regard, we believe that critics of the role playing method have made a valid point. Gorman et al. (1978) have argued, for example, that studies in which subjects evaluate hypothetical interviewees fail to capture the rich dynamics of the situations they attempt to study. Although such an approximation could be attempted through a highly involving role playing method, such studies are relatively unusual. Instead of opting to improve the situation, it is more typical for experimenters to simply apologize for it by including a few carefully worded disclaimers acknowledging this flaw in their discussion sections. Some are quite general, such as: “simulations have their limitation” (Dutton & Webster, 1988, p. 673), and “Future investigators will need to assess the validity of the present model across varied employment settings” (Rusbult, Farrell, Rogers, & Mainous, 1988, p. 617). Others, thankfully, are much more sensitive to the problems, such as: “Unlike supervisors in actual organizations, the college students had few costs associated with their appraisals and subsequent decisions” (Czajka & DeNisi, 1988, p. 402). Still others hedge a bit by noting that the behavior of MBA students might not be equivalent to that of “seasoned professional managers,” although their particular study “represents a useful improvement on experiments with naive students working briefly on unfamiliar problems outside their professional expertise” (Bukszar & Connolly, 1988, p. 638). However, the most common response of all, we noted, was simply to ignore the matter completely.

To Learn About Basic Psychological Processes

In addition to their interest in learning about attitudes and behaviors of people in work contexts, organizational researchers are also interested in the basic psychological processes that form the foundations of such attitudes and behaviors – perception, cognition, and judgment. Role playing is frequently used in such studies.

Consider, for example, a study of decision making by Olshavsky (1979) in which students were presented carefully manipulated pieces of information about various products and were asked to report how they would use that information to make purchase decisions. In other studies designed to learn about basic judgmental processes, subjects have been asked to assume various roles, including those requiring them to make real estate investment decisions (Northcraft & Neale, 1986), and judgments about the guilt or innocence of criminal defendants (Ono & Davis, 1988). In all cases, it was the intent of the researchers to study basic judgmental processes per se, and not to generalize to the contexts themselves, which were merely incidental.

Characteristic Dimensions of Role Playing Studies

Although role playing studies may be conducted for different purposes, it is important to recognize that all role playing studies may be characterized as differing along three key dimensions (Greenberg & Folger, 1988). We will now describe these basic characteristics in order to shed light on the variety of role playing studies used by organizational researchers.

Level of Involvement

Role playing studies vary with respect to the degree of active involvement participants encounter (Ginsburg, 1979; Hamilton, 1976; Hendrick, 1977). On the low side of the continuum are “nonactive” studies (Mixon, 1976) in which subjects are asked to imagine that they are in a certain situation (Hendrick, 1977; Mixon, 1971). Typically, paper-and-pencil responses (or, sometimes, verbal utterances), rather than overt behaviors, constitute the dependent measure in such studies. By contrast, other role playing studies encourage research subjects to be more actively involved in the roles they play (Alexander & Scriven, 1977). Such studies typically measure overt behaviors and rely on props to enhance the realism of the situations encountered (Hamilton, 1976). Highly active role playing studies analyzing complex behaviors in realistic settings are essentially simulations of some situation of interest to the investigator (Krupat, 1977). Table 2 summarizes various points along this continuum and notes examples of studies representative of each.


Although the continuous nature of the passive-active dimension makes it difficult to unambiguously identify the exact number of nonactive versus active role playing studies published, it is possible to identify cases falling at various points along the continuum. At the least active extreme are studies in which participants are asked to imagine that they are in certain situations, and are even given only minimal written descriptions of that situation. Among these is the study by Olshavsky (1979) described earlier. In this investigation of decision making processes students were asked to imagine either that they and another would be selecting a condominium apartment to rent during a 2-week skiing vacation in Vail, Colorado, or that they were planning to buy a stereo receiver for themselves as a birthday present. No additional descriptions were given about these situations, except for stimulus information of a “semitextual fashion” typed onto index cards.

A bit less abstract, but still highly nonactive, are studies in which people read brief written descriptions and are asked to make judgments on the basis of what they read. These are the much maligned “paper person” studies (Guion, 1983). Interestingly, the paper person studies themselves differ with respect to the degree to which descriptions of stimuli allow for active involvement. For example, Crocker, Mitchell, and Beach (1978) asked students to rate job candidates on the basis of 20 items of descriptive or biographical information. Isen and Patrick (1983, Study 2) had subjects read 4-sentence descriptions of a person in a risky situation and asked them how likely they would be themselves to select one of the alternatives. Two pages appearing to be taken from someone’s personnel file were read by subjects in the study by Pence, Pendleton, Dobbins, and Sgro (1982) and were used as the basis for recommending corrective actions. Even more involving were longer cases (5 pages in length) used by McAllister, Mitchell, and Beach (1979) describing information to be used as the basis for selecting a decision strategy. Some so-called “paper people” have even been presented in a more involving way – by videotape. For example, Mullins (1982) asked subjects to rate the job interview performance of candidates seen on videotape. Rasmussen (1984) had subjects rate job applicants’ qualifications after reading written resumes and observing them on videotape. Stimulus information presented on videotape may be expected to be considerably more involving than similar information described in a less vivid, written fashion.

A bit more involving are those investigations simulating a real business setting, a simulation game. Although the participants know that they are not playing “for real,” the game may be so involving that it elicits highly realistic responses. As Greenberg and Folger put it, “one need merely recall the very involving experiences created by the ‘illusion’ of reality in an emotionally moving play, or even a game of Monopoly” (1988, p. 44). Business simulations differ with respect to the degree of involvement they offer. Relatively common are studies in which people are asked to play roles and complete a series of in-basket exercises consistent with the role. For example, Srinivas and Motowidlo (1987) had students complete an in-basket exercise for 45 minutes while playing the role of a sales manager. Stone, Gueutal, and McIntosh (1984) had subjects play the role of a personnel manager for one hour, and then four weeks later had them play the role of a person receiving a performance evaluation for another hour.

Some researchers have used very elaborate simulation edxercises (Manz & Simms, 1986), including studies that have gone on for several days (Goldstein & Reilly, 1985). Such investigations, with their sophisticated computer technology, and the great demands they create for interpersonal contact are a far cry in level of intensity from studies simply asking subjects to imagine being in a situation. Still, both are role playing studies because the participants in both are behaving as if they are in a certain situation, but realize, of course, that their actions have no real impact. The difference can be likened to the kinds of sets used in theater productions. Whereas players must use their imaginations to play their parts on a minimalistic, mostly blackened stage, productions with more elaborate stagings may make it easier to act in role. Regardless, it is still only acting that is going on in either case.

Role Being Played

What role is being played in role playing studies? The response can be envisioned as differing along two independent dimensions: person and familiarity. Who is being played? In most cases, participants are asked to play themselves, either explicitly or implicitly (Hendrick, 1977). That is, they are asked to behave appropriately with their own roles in a social situation. However, some investigators ask participants to take on the role of a specific or generalized other, to respond how someone else would. For example, research subjects may be asked to indicate how they would respond in a given situation, or how they think a specific or generalized other would respond. In addition to whether participants are asked to play themselves or another, it should be noted that they either may be familiar or unfamiliar with the context within which the role is enacted. For example, a subject may be asked how a finance manager would make a loan decision – a situation that would be known only to those who are familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the role. By cross-cutting the person playing a role and the familiarity of the role being played, four distinct groups of studies may be identified. The resulting taxonomy and selected examples of studies representing each category is shown in Table 3.


Most of the role playing studies published in the surveyed literature asked subjects to play themselves, either in a situation that was familiar to them, or one that was unfamiliar to them. In the self/ familiar category are investigations in which there is a match between the background of the participants and the role playing context. For example, Hollenbeck and Williams (1987) asked a sample of salespeople how they would respond to a job change situation presented to them in written form. Similarly, Krzystofiak, Cardy, and Newman (1985) asked college students to evaluate instructors described to them in various ways. In both cases, the participants were required to indicate how they would respond to situations with which they could be expected to be familiar by virtue of their background characteristics. By contrast, participants in some other role playing studies have been asked to indicate how they would respond in a situation about which they may be unfamiliar. For example, McCain (1986) asked students to make budgetary decisions playing the role of a Financial Vice President for a large conglomerate. Heilman and Stopeck (1985) asked MBA students to act as personnel decision makers by evaluating employees and making pay raise and promotion decisions about them. Finally, Young (1978) had undergraduate students read descriptions of supervisor-subordinate relationships and then asked them how willing they would be to give various messages to their superior if they were the subordinate about whom they read. In all three studies little assurance was provided that subjects knew much, if anything, about the roles they were asked to play.

Although far less common, some role playing studies require subjects to behave in ways they would imagine another person would – either in a familiar or an unfamiliar situation. Greenhaus, Seidel, and Marinis (1983), for example, engaged college students in a simulation in which they were asked how a hypothetical college senior (described during the course of the study in a manner that manipulated the variables of interest) would behave during the job recruitment process. Some investigators approached familiarity by requiring their subjects to play well-known fictitious roles. For example, in the process of pretesting their “substitutes for leadership” scales, Kerr and Jermeier (1978) asked undergraduate students to complete the scales as they thought various popular TV characters (Mary Richards from the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Hawkeye Pierce from M*A*S*H, and Archie Bunker from All in the Family) would do in reference to their superiors (Mr. Grant, Colonel Potter, and the loading dock supervisor, respectively). Although the participants in these studies may have been expected to be familiar with the situation the hypothetical person faced, the same cannot be said of all studies in which persons are asked to play the role of others. Consider, for example, the negotiators from the fabricated “Phralby” and “Grizzat” cultures played by subjects in one condition of the study by Neale, Huber, and Northcraft (1987). Summarizing, some role playing studies may require participants to behave as they think others would do – others with whom the participants may or may not be familiar.

Degree of Response Specificity

A third dimension along which role playing studies may be differentiated is the degree to which subjects are free to improvise their reactions to the role playing by responding in a free and spontaneous manner as opposed to a highly restricted, specified manner (Hamilton, 1976; Hendrick, 1977). The vast majority of the studies surveyed relied on highly specific types of responses – that is, dependent measures that were formulated in an a priori, quantifiable manner, such as questionnaire responses.

Most of the studies of this type engaged participants in some type of role playing experience and then asked them to judge, evaluate, or make recommendations about the target stimuli observed. Almost any imaginable work-related evaluative dimension has been studied. Some relatively typical examples include, recommendations about employee retirement (e.g., Rosen, Jerdee, & Lunn, 1981), judgments of suitability and likely success of employment (e.g., Paunonen, Jackson, & Oberman, 1987), and evaluations of employee qualifications and suggested starting salaries (e.g., Heilman & Saruwatari, 1979).

Another group of studies used specific responses to tap subjects’ behavioral intentions (i.e., self-reports of what subjects claim they would be likely to do in the situation encountered). For example, subjects in the role playing study by Ansari and Kapoor (1987) were asked to indicate the likelihood that they would follow several specific influence strategies in order to achieve the goals about which they read in a brief written story. In another example, Wood and Mitchell (1981) asked subjects to indicate the specific disciplinary actions they would expect to take in response to a case of poor employee performance. Because only intentions to behave in a certain manner were measured instead of any actual behaviors (except for recording of the responses), these studies represent examples of specific behavioral intentions measured in response to a role-played situation.

Not all responses to role playing are as highly specified. Some studies do not restrict the measures employed to readily quantifiable, yet highly restricted questionnaire responses. To determine subjects’ reactions to a role playing, some investigations using more involving simulations applied some sort of post hoc analysis of freely expressed behaviors as the basis of the data collected. For example, in a study concerned with how communication effects organized action, Donnellon, Gray and Bougon (1986) videotaped subjects’ naturally occurring communication behaviors during simulated business exercises and later analyzed their discourse. Similarly, Simms and Manz (1984) used an observational coding scheme to tap the responses of subjects playing the role of subordinates to an influence attempt by their supervisor. Carnevale and Isen (1986) content analyzed the spontaneous verbal negotiation tactics used by subjects in a simulated buyer-seller exercise. They also used observers to record a broad variety of nonverbal behaviors.

Subjects in these studies were allowed to react freely and without restriction as they would as incumbents of the roles they play. Although coding of these responses ultimately may reflect a limited a priori set of responses that reflect the investigator’s interest, by studying a broader, less restrictive set of behaviors, researchers may be assured that the behavior of interest is expressed as part of a more natural collection of responses. A benefit of this is that the behaviors of interest may be more valid representations of responses outside the research setting. Moreover, by casting a broader net, researchers may learn about important classes of responses that may have otherwise escaped their attention.

Tailoring Role Playing Methodology To

The Purpose of The Research: Some Guidelines

Now that we have identified two basic purposes of role playing research and three principle dimensions that characterize such investigations, we are prepared to suggest ways that these various dimensions can be tailored to effectively match the researcher’s underlying purpose. We summarize our suggestions in Table 4, which will guide our presentation in this section of the article.


Studies Designed to Learn About Attitudes

and Behavior in an Organizational Context

It is obvious that the most effective way to learn about behavior in a particular context is to study that context directly. Still, it may be claimed that under certain conditions, simulating settings of interest may provide potentially valuable insight into people’s beliefs about the social norms and rules operating within those settings – a potentially useful type of data. In other words, whereas role playing studies may not be able to tell us what people actually will do, they might be able to tell us something about what people think is appropriate behavior in certain contexts. For this purpose, it is essential that role playing studies be conducted so that they allow subjects: (a) to be highly involved, (b) to play themselves in familiar roles, and (c) to be allowed to respond in a nonrestrictive manner.

Level of involvement. When researchers are interested in learning about behaviors in real life situations, it is important that the level of involvement used in role playing studies be at least moderate, and preferably higher. Although establishing an active level of involvement among participants cannot guarantee that the experiences encountered in the laboratory will correspond to those found in the field, highly involving role playing procedures will more closely simulate the context of interest, and should therefore be used instead of less involving procedures. Indeed, if investigators are to have any hope of learning about behavior in a particular context, it is critical for them to capture the essential features of that context in their studies (Aronson & Carlsmith, 1968), a state that may be approximated using highly involving role playing studies.

In this regard, Weick (1965) has argued that to enhance generalizability outside the laboratory, simulations of organizational phenomenon need to be similar to the actual organizations of interest with respect to five key dimensions: (a) work group size, (b) the duration of interpersonal contacts, (c) the ambiguity of performance feedback, (d) the personal value of performance outcomes, and (e) the degree of task interdependence. Making a similar case in more general terms, Fromkin and Streufert (1976) have argued that the key to being able to generalize to the world of real organizations is to conduct studies that incorporate the key boundary variables under which the phenomena of interest operate. Doing so is, of course, easier said than done.

The fact that it may be difficult to simulate the key features of organizational situations in role playing studies accounts for the unfortunately high incidence of studies that are unsuccessful in creating roles that are appropriate for the experimenter’s purpose. For example, although Ayers-Nachamkin, Cann, Reed, and Horne (1982) were interested in learning about the use of power by women and minorities in supervisory positions, they studied it using an interpersonal simulation that failed to capture the intensity of most superior-subordinate settings. In another example, Loftus claimed to be interested in studying “the influence on jurors of expert testimony about eyewitness identification,” (1980, p. 9). However, to do so she asked students to reach individual verdicts after reading cases. Although her data may provide some useful purpose, the methodology she used is devoid of the richness of factors that might influence actual juror behavior and should not be used as the basis for making claims about actual juror behavior in jury situations (see Davis, Bray, & Holt, 1977). Our point is that because these studies fail to capture the richness of the contexts of interest, it is difficult for subjects in them to imagine how they actually would respond, thereby casting doubt on the extent to which the studies were successful in achieving their missions.

Fortunately, we also found several examples of effective role playing studies in the literature – studies in which subjects were given a relatively high level of involvement. For example, Hirst (1988) had practicing managers play the role of plant managers required to allocate resources. This study was designed to determine the effects of task interdependence and goal setting on intrinsic motivation, a mission that required the use of highly realistic conditions. To approximate the situation of interest, the investigator presented great amounts of background information about the context of interest to subjects, and allowed them to “get into” their roles by conducting the study over 6.5 hours. Although subjects knew they were not making decisions that would have any real effects, the elaborate nature of the experimental setting involved subjects to the point that they were able to respond in ways that may approximate behavior outside the experimental setting. Another highly involving role playing study was conducted by Gladstein and Reilly (1985). These investigators used a complex business strategy game known as Tycoon to learn about the effects of external threat and stress on group decision making. Rather than simply asking people to imagine that they were in a threatening situation, the procedure simulated threatening conditions in an elaborate computer-based game that was played by MBA students over a six day period, thereby “achieving an intensity not often found in other situations” (Gladstein & Reilly, 1985, p. 617). Although subject knew they were not really in a threatening situation, the intensity of the experimental setting enabled them to imagine being in such a situation, thereby enhancing the validity of their responses.

Studies such as these impose far greater demands for interpersonal contact than those in which subjects are asked to simply imagine being in a situation, but are not given much, if any, information about that situation. They also place subjects in a situation that more effectively incorporates the texture and feel of the real life settings they are designed to examine. As such, they begin to incorporate some of the characteristics for conducting realistic research outside experimental settings advocated by Weick (1965) and by Fromkin and Streufert (1976). Such characteristics are likely to evoke reactions that better predict behavior that generalizes beyond the experimental setting than those research settings in which the level of involvement is very low (Mixon, 1976). It is for this reason that we encourage researchers using role playing as a tool for learning about behavior in organizational contexts to create experiences for subjects that are as highly involving as possible, situations that more realistically simulate the salient characteristics of those settings.

Role being played. When researchers are interested in studying real life situations and behaviors, we believe it is critical to limit the roles played by subjects to themselves (as opposed to another) in a highly familiar (as opposed to unfamiliar) situation. Because subjects are less likely to be familiar with how others may react or what behaviors are appropriate in unfamiliar settings, it is best to avoid such situations when role playing studies are conducted for purposes of learning about behaviors in organizational settings.

As obvious as this may be, we found several examples of situations in which subjects were asked to play the roles of unknown others in unfamiliar situations. For example, McCain (1986) asked students to play the role of a Financial Vice President for a large conglomerate and to make budgetary decisions. Similarly, Heilman and Stopeck (1985) asked MBA students to act as personnel officers by evaluating hypothetical employees and making pay raise and promotion decisions about them. Because subjects in both studies would not be expected to know much about the contexts studied, it cannot be said that the judgments made may reveal any valid insight into how decisions would be made in these contexts.

By contrast, we noted several studies in which subjects were asked to play familiar roles. For example, Krzystofiak, Cardy, and Newman (1988) had undergraduate students evaluate college instructors about whom they read in written vignettes. Analogously, Arkes, Faust, Guilmette, and Hart (1988) asked a group of neuropsychologists to estimate the probability of making different diagnoses after reading written case studies. In both cases, the subjects knew the role required of them, making them much more likely to react in a manner consistent with that role than someone not familiar with the requirements of that role.

A particularly good example of a high level of familiarity with the role being played can be seen in a study by Wall and Rude (1987) designed to investigate the judicial mediation process. Subjects in this study were 650 state judges who were asked to read a legal case that was typical of the cases usually brought before them, and to indicate if and how they would rule. Although this is still a role playing study (the judges knew their rulings didn’t matter), the fact that they were asked to make judgments about highly familiar situations made it possible to make a strong case for the generalizability of their findings. Certainly, a less compelling argument would have resulted had undergraduates been asked to play the role of judges. The problem in this case would not be that undergraduates were used per se – a popular source of disenchantment among organizational researchers (e.g., see Gordon, Slade, & Schmitt, 1986), but that any population was used that may have been unfamiliar with the nature of the judgments being requested of them.

Response specificity. In attempting to capture the richness of behaviors in real life situations, we recommend that investigators using role playing studies allow their subjects to respond in a non-restrictive, open manner. Thus, instead of relying on responses to questionnaire items (far and away, the most popular form of response), researchers should be encouraged to allow their subjects to freely respond to their roles by including as data responses that are highly nonspecific. For example, to test hypotheses concerning the nature of interactions between superiors and subordinates, Watson (1982) tape recorded role-played goal setting discussions and coded them with respect to a priori defined categories. Similarly, Dipboye, Fontenelle, and Garner (1984) videotaped the behavior of subjects playing the role of employment interviewers under various conditions. They subsequently used a coder blind to the experimental conditions to score the behaviors observed with respect to several a priori dimensions. These studies represent examples of role playing studies in which the responses measured were not so highly specified that it precluded subjects the opportunity to respond to the role play in a more improvisational, less scripted manner.

When the researcher’s purpose is to generalize behaviors to real life situations, the use of highly open-ended, nonspecific methods of data collection are especially useful. In such instances, the richness and variety of the context would be better reflected by the data than would more narrow responses. In providing only highly specific responses, investigators run the risk of communicating to subjects their a priori ideas about the factors that should be important in the role they are playing. As in a real life situations, however, there may be many other factors that actually are important, and that need to be disclosed if the study is to be effective in capturing the essence of the context of interest.

Learning about Basic Psychological Processes

In contrast to studies designed to provide insight into the attitudes and behaviors of people in various contexts, role playing studies designed to provide insight into basic psychological processes need to incorporate opposite levels of the three basic dimensions. For this purpose, we recommend that role playing studies be conducted so that they allow subjects: (a) to have a low level of involvement, (b) to play others in unfamiliar roles, and (c) to be limited to responding in a highly restrictive manner.

Level of involvement. When the purpose of research is to study judgmental or cognitive processes, it is not necessary for subjects’ level of involvement to be high. In fact, by contrast to studies designed to shed light on the social contexts of behavior, studies designed to examine basic psychological processes may benefit by building in low levels of involvement.

As an example, consider that highly uninvolving, artificial role playing study by Olshavsky (1979) previously described. Subjects in this study were asked to imagine they were going on a ski trip to Aspen or that they were evaluating a condominium they would be renting or a stereo receiver they would

be purchasing. These stimuli were described via brief listings of specifications. No more graphic information was presented about the stimuli, making the level of involvement very low. In this case, low involvement may not be considered a problem, but a virtue. By keeping the amount of extraneous, contextual information constant at a low level, the investigator was able to analyze the impact of the information presented on subjects’ judgmental processes in a relatively neutral, uncontaminated way.

This study is typical of many studies of human judgment processes interested in studying people’s cognitive processes. For example, consider the novel roles played by subjects in studies requiring them to make real estate investment decisions (Northcraft & Neale, 1986), or judgments about the guilt or innocence of criminal defendants (Ono & Davis, 1988). In both cases, because it was the intent of the researchers to study judgmental processes per se, the contexts were mere experimental conveniences, and no generalizations were made to the worlds of real estate or criminal justice. For these studies, reading and reacting to vignettes constituted appropriate involvement to examine the topics of interest.

Role being played. Scientists not immediately interested in learning about the behavior likely to occur in social contexts need not be as concerned about asking people to make judgments that extend beyond their own experience base as those who are. In fact, subjects asked to play the role of others in unfamiliar settings may be more inclined to respond to the specific nature of the stimuli presented than those whose judgments may be influenced by experiences they bring to bear by virtue of their familiarity with the context. For this reason, we believe that researchers interested in studying basic psychological processes would benefit by asking subjects to play novel roles.

We found very good examples of investigators studying cognitive processes by asking subjects to play unfamiliar roles. For example, in several studies of decision-making processes in groups, subjects were asked to play the obviously unfamiliar role of astronauts stranded on the moon (e.g., Tjosvold & Field, 1983; Yetton & Bottger, 1982). Analogously, several studies of human judgment processes asked subjects to play the obviously unfamiliar roles of investment advisors (Northcraft & Neale, 1986) and scientists in search of oil (Isenberg, 1981). In these cases, although subjects were not familiar with the roles being played, their responses were considered useful because they reflected the kinds of judgments in which the experimenters were interested. Importantly, they were able to do so in a manner that was unlikely to be contaminated by familiarity with the experimental context. In short, because the experimenters were more interested in the processes than the context, it was considered desirable to hold constant at a low level the impact of the context. They did this by selecting contexts with which subjects were unfamiliar, hence unlikely to be contaminated by context-related experiences that may influence judgments.

Response specificity. Compared to research in which the richness of the context is likely to be highlighted by the use of nonspecific, spontaneous role playing responses, it cannot be claimed that the same benefit would be likely in the case of more basic research. In fact, role playing studies designed to examine basic processes may focus more effectively on the processes of interest by narrowly defining the behaviors of interest.

Although there are not many studies that fit into this category, the test of multiattribute utility theory by Pitz, Heerboth, and Sachs (1980) is illustrative. These investigators had undergraduate students make judgments about the amount of rent they would be willing to pay in exchange for certain characteristics of apartments described to them. Insofar as the specific judgments made constituted the behavior of interest, it was necessary to a priori require the use of this dependent variable. In short, research interest in specific judgmental responses requires the use of specific dependent variables.


Role playing is a commonly used tool used for learning about the kinds of behavior believed to occur in organizations. Role playing techniques are useful for learning about the roles and rules that guide behavior in organizational contexts. They are also useful for creating a framework for studying cognitive processes (e.g., judgment, or social process apart from contextual effects). However, the technique has been misused by investigators who have overstated the conclusions their role playing data allowed them to draw. It also has been misused by investigators whose primary interest is in studying context-sensitive behaviors. Role playing, like any other research technique, is a tool that is not inherently good or bad, but is only as beneficial or dangerous as those using it will allow. We hope that the present remarks will inspire more organizational investigators to use role playing appropriately, and get others to accept the contributions of those who do.


1 . Acomplete bibliographic listing of the articles containing the role playing studies is available from the first author upon request.


Aldag, R. J., & Stearns, T. M. (1988). Issues in research methodology. Journal of Management, 14, 253-276.

Alexander, C. N., Jr., & Scriven, G. D. (1977). Role playing: An essential element of experimentation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 3, 455-466. Ansari, M. A., & Kapoor, A. (1987). Organizational context and upward influence tactics. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 40, 39A9. Arkes, H. R., Faust, D., Guilmette, T. J., & Hart, K. (1988). Eliminating the hindsight bias. Journal of Applied Psychology, 73, 305-307. Arnold, H. J. (1985). Task performance, perceived competence, and attributed causes of performance as determinants of intrinsic motivation. Academy of Management Journal, 28, 876-888. Aronson, E., & Carlsmith, J. M. (1968). Experimentation in social psychology. Pp. 1-79 in G. Lindzey, & E. Aronson (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology, Vol. 2, 2nd ed. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley. Ayers-Nachamkin, B., Cann, C. H., Reed, R., & Horne, A. (1982). Sex and ethnic differences in the use of power. Journal of Applied Psychology, 67, 464-47). Baron, R. A. (1988). Negative effects of destructive criticism: Impact on conflict, self-efficacy, and task performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 73, 199-207. Baron, R. M. (1977). Role playing and experimental research: The identification of appropriate domains of power. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 3, 505-513. Brown, K. A., & Mitchell, T. R. (1986). Influence of task interdependence and number of poor performers on diagnoses of causes of poor performance. Academy of Management Journal, 29, 412-424. Bukszar, E., & Connolly, T. (1988). Hindsight bias and strategic choice: Some problems in learning from experience. Academy of Management Journal, 31, 628-641. Campbell, D. J. (1978). The effects of psychological closeness and type of exchange situation on perceived inequity. Academy of Management Journal, 21, 307-312. Crocker, O. L. K., Mitchell, T. R., & Beach, L. R. (1978). Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 22, 253-261. Czajka, J. M., & DeNisi, A. S. (1988). Effects of emotional disability and clear performance standards on performance ratings. Academy of Management Journal, 31, 394-404. Davis, J. H., Bray, R. M., & Holt, R. W. (1977). The empirical study of decision processes injuries: A critical review. Pp. 326-361 in J. L. Tapp, & F. J. Levine (Eds.), Law, justice, and the individual in society. New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston. Dipboye, R. L., Fontenelle, G. A., & Garner, K. (1984). Effects of previewing the application on interview processes and outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 69, 118-128. Dutton, J. E., & Webster, J. (1988). Patterns of interest around issues: The role of uncertainty and feasibility. Academy of Management Journal, 31, 663-675. Earley, P. C. (1987). Intercultural training for managers: A comparison of documentary and interpersonal methods. Academy of Management Journal, 30, 685-698. Freedman, J. L. (1969). Role playing: Psychology by consensus. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 13, 107-114. Ginsburg, G. P. (1979) The effective use of role-playing in social psychological research. Pp. 4-16 in G. P. Ginsburg (Ed.), Emerging strategies in social psychological research. London: Wiley. Gladstein, D. L., & Reilly, N. P. (1985) Group decision making under threat: The Tycoon game. Academy of Management Journal, 28, 613-627. Goldstein, A. P., & Simonson, N. R. (1971) Social psychological approaches to psychotherapy research. Pp. 51-71 in A. E. Bergin, & S. L. Garfield (Eds.), Handbook of psychotherapy and behavior change. New York: Wiley. Gorman, C. D., Clover, W. H., & Doherty, M. E. (1978). Can we learn anything about interviewing real people from “interviews” of paper people? Two studies of the external validity of a paradigm. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 22, 165-192. Greenberg, J. (1987). Real people + real situations = real research. Really? Contemporary Social Psychology, 12, 47-51. Greenberg, J., & Folger, R. (1988). Controversial issues in social research methods. New York: Springer-Verlag. Greenhaus, J. H., Seidel, C., & Marinis, M. (1983). The impact of expectations and values on job attitudes. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 31, 394-417. Guion, R. M. (1983). Editorial: Comments from the new editor. Journal of Applied Psychology, 68, 547-551. Hamilton, V. L. (1976). Role play and deception: A reexamination of the controversy. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 6, 233-250. Haney, C., Banks, W. C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1973). International dynamics in a simulated prison. International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1, 69-97. Harre, R., & Secord, P. F. (1972). The explanation of social behaviour. Oxford, England: Blackwell. Heilman, M. E., & Saruwatari, L. R. (1979). When beauty is beastly: The effects of appearance and sex on evaluations of job applicants for managerial and nonmanagerial jobs. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 23, 360-372. Heilman, M. E., & Stopeck, M. H. (1985). Being attractive, advantage or disadvantage? Performance-based evaluations and recommended personnel actions as a function of appearance, sex, and job type. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 35, 202-215. Hendrick, C. (1977). Role-taking, role-playing, and the laboratory experiment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 3, 467-478. Henshel, R. L. (1980). The purpose of laboratory experimentation and the virtues of deliberate artificiality. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 16, 46-478. Hollenbeck, J. R., & Williams, C. R. (1987). Goal importance, self-focus, and the goal-setting process. Journal of Applied Psychology, 72, 204-211, Ilgen, D. R., Mitchell, T. R., & Fredrickson, J. W. (1981). Poor performers: Supervisors’ and subordinates’ responses. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 27, 386-410. Isen, A. M., & Patrick, R. (1983). The effects of positive feelings on risk taking: When the chips are down. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 31, 194-202.El Isenberg, D. J. (1981). Some effects of time-pressure on vertical structure and decision-making accuracy in small groups. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 27, 119-134. Ivancevich, J. M., & Smith, S. V. (1981). Goal setting interview skills training: Simulated and on-the-job analyses. Journal of Applied Psychology, 66, 697-705. Kerr, S., & Jermier, J. M. (1978). Substitutes for leadership: Their meaning and measurement. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 22, 375-403. Krupat, E. (1977). A re-assessment of role playing as a technique in social psychology. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 3, 498-504. Krzystofiak, F., Cardy, R., & Newman, J. (1988). Implicit personality and performance appraisal: The influence of trait inferences on evaluations of behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology, 73, 515-521. Loftus, E. F. (1980). The impact of expert psychological testimony on the unreliability of eyewitness identification. Journal of Applied Psychology, 65, 9-15. Manz, C. C., & Sims, H. P., Jr. (1986). Beyond imitation: Complex behavioral and affective linkages resulting from exposure to leadership training models. Journal of Applied Psychology, 71, 571-578. Mayfield, E. C., Brown, S. H., & Hamstra, B. W. (1980). Selection interviewing in the life insurance industry: An update of research and practice. Personnel Psychology, 33, 725-739. McAllister, D. W., Mitchell, T. R., & Beach, L. R. (1979). The contingency model for the selection of decision strategies: An empirical test of the effects of significance, accountability and reversibility. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 24, 228-244. McCain, B., E. (1986). Continuing investment under conditions of failure: A laboratory study of the limits to escalation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 71, 280-284. Mitchell, T. R., & Kalb, L. S. (1981). Effects of outcome knowledge and outcome valence on supervisors’ evaluations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 66, 604-612, _____.(1982). Effects of job experience on supervisor attributions for a subordinate’s poor performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 67, 181-188. Mixon, D. (1971). Behaviour analysis treating subjects as actors rather than organisms. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 1, 19-32. _____.(1976). Studying feignable behavior. Representative Research in Social Psychology, 7, 89-104. Moore, D. P. (1984). Evaluating in-role and out-of-role performers. Academy of Management Journal, 27, 603-618. Mullins, T. W. (1982). Interviewer decisions as a function of applicant race, applicant quality, and interviewer prejudice. Personnel Psychology, 35, 163-174. Murphy, K. R., Herr, Lockhart, M. C., & Maguire, E. (1986). Evaluating the performance of paper people. Journal of Applied Psychology, 71, 654-661. Northcraft, G. B., & Neale, M. A. (1986). Opportunity costs and the framing of resource allocation decisions. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 37, 348-356. Neale, M. A., Huber, M. A., & Northcraft, G. B. (1987). The framing of negotiations: Contextual versus task frames. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 39, 228-241. Olshavsky, R. W. (1979). Task complexity and contingent processing in decision making: A replication and extension. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 24, 300-316. Ono, K., & Davis, J. H. (1988). Individual judgment and group interaction: A variable perspective approach. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 41, 211-232. Paunonen, S. V., Jackson, D. N., & Oberman, S. M. (1987). Personnel selection decisions: Effects of applicant personality and the letter of reference. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 40, 96-114. Pence, E. C., Pendleton, W. C., Dobbins, G. H., & Sgro, J. A. (1982). Effects of causal explanations and sex variables on recommendations for corrective actions following employee failure. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 29, 227-240. Rasmussen, K. G., Jr. (1984). Nonverbal behavior, verbal behavior, resume credentials, and selection interview outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 69, 551-556. Rosen, B., Jerdee, T. H., & Lunn, R. O. (1981). Effects of performance appraisal format, age, and performance level on retirement decisions. Journal of Applied Psychology, 66, 515-519. Rusbult, C. E., Farrell, D., Rogers, G., & Mainous, A. G., III. (1988). Impact of exchange variables on exit, voice, loyalty, and neglect: An integrative model of responses to declining job satisfaction. Academy of Management Journal, 31, 599-627. Schultz, D. P. (1969). The human subject in psychological research. Psychological Bulletin, 72, 214-228. Simms, H. P., Jr., & Manz, C. C. (1984). Observing leader behavior: Toward reciprocal determinism in leadership theory. Journal of Applied Psychology, 69, 222-232. Spencer, C. D. (1978). Two types of role playing: Threats to internal and external validity. American Psychologist, 3, 265-268. Srinivas, S., & Motowidlo, S. J. (1987). Effects of raters’ stress on the dispersion and favorability of performance ratings. Journal of Applied Psychology, 72, 247-251. Staw, B. M., & Ross, J. (1978). Commitment to a policy decision: A multi-theoretical perspective. Administrative Science Quarterly, 2, 40-64. Stern, R. M., Breen, J. P., Watanabe, T., & Perry, B. S. (1981). Effect of feedback of physiological information on responses to innocent associations and guilty knowledge. Journal of Applied Psychology, 66, 677-681. Stone, D. L., Guetal, H. G., & McIntosh, B. (1984). The effects of feedback sequence and expertise of the rater on perceived feedback accuracy. Personnel Psychology, 37, 487-506. Terborg, J. R., & Davis, G. A. (1982). Evaluation of a new method for assessing change to planned job redesign as applied to Hackman and Oldham’s job characteristics model. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 29, 112-128. Timm, H. W. (1982). Effect of altered outcome expectancies stemming from placebo and feedback treatments on the validity of the guilty knowledge technique. Journal of Applied Psychology, 67, 391-400. Tjosvold, D., & Field, R. H. G. (1983). Effects of social context on consensus and majority vote decision making. Academy of Management Journal, 26, 500-506. Trower, P., Bryant, B., & Argyle, M. (1977). Social skills and menial health. London: Methuen. Watson, K. M. (1982). An analysis of communication patterns: A method for discriminating leader and subordinate roles. Academy of Management Journal, 25, 107-120. Wood, R. E., & Mitchell, T. R. (1981). Manager behavior in a social context: The impact of impression management on attributions and disciplinary actions. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 28, 456-378. Yetton, P. W., & Bottger, P. C. (1982). Empirical versus group problem solving: An empirical test of a bestmember strategy. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 29, 307-321. Young, J. W. (1978). The subordinate’s exposure of organizational vulnerability to the superior: Sex and organizational effects. Academy of Management Journal 21, 113-122.

COPYRIGHT 1993 JAI Press, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group