Participants and Prejudice

During uni, a lot of focus is put on the ability to think critically, evaluate research, and work out how best to psychologically study the world…apparently. In all honesty, while evaluating results and testing methods is strictly marked, a student could easily coast through the entire three years without putting any deep thought into research participants and their dynamics.

When evaluating research, it’s easy to make superficial criticisms of the study based on one factor. This study uses only males? It’s androcentric. Only females? It’s gynocentric (and rare). Only Americans? It’s ethnocentric.

Beyond that most salient factor, however, that’s it for thinking about participants. And I’m questioning whether that is a form of prejudice or dehumanisation in a way: all we’re doing is reducing a group of complex individuals down to one factor, and claiming that one factor can explain their performance in the study.

Also, just looking at that most salient factor takes away from the nuances of a study, and misses the point. For example, criticising Milgram’s study for being only on Americans is completely missing a major point of the study- the findings were so shocking because the study used Americans. People expected to find that “Germans were different”, that German people had a mentality which led to them blindly obeying orders while other nationalities didn’t.

If Milgram’s study had been conducted on German people first, the results would have been seen as “proof” of their lacking morality and could even have been used to oppress and punish them. Conducting it on Americans showed that there was more to it than Germans, that people in general were easily susceptible to being given orders, even cruel and illogical orders. In actuality, it was the best thing Milgram could have done.

Even knowing this, it’s easy for students learning about this to think we would be different, that as psychology students we would know enough to be immune. That’s not the case, as most research participants are psychology students. And even though we take part in research as students, so we know how the research process works, its easy for us to do that uncritically and unthinkingly, or just for the course credit.

I wonder if psychology students need to be explicitly shown that some of the biggest psychological experiments, the ones in our textbooks, and the ones that changed our discipline, were conducted on people just like us. It’s such an odd thought, and something that is so easily missed.

If students were asked to think about their cohort being part of a major study, and to analyse what factors could change how they performed, could they tell the difference between factors salient to others, and factors which would be ignored? Thought experiments like that in different research situation may be a slightly more naturalistic way of explaining methodological evaluation.

Consider a 2014 study by Nicholls et al [1]. They performed a meta-experiment on participants, comparing the performance of course-credit participants against paid participants both at the start and end of the semester. They found the paid participants  performed equally well at both times, and were equally motivated to take part. Course-credit participants were much more variable, performing more inconsistently at the end, and having less motivation to take part.

Would you have thought to include that situation in a study evaluation? And would research participants realise their chosen reward could affect their performance so much?

[1] Nicholls, M., Loveless, K., Thomas, N., Loetscher, T., & Churches, O. (2014). Some participants may be better than others: Sustained attention and motivation are higher early in semester.The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1-19

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