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Section Six: Human Participation in Research
CASE STUDY: A Test of Anxiety*
At the beginning of the Introduction to Psychology class, students were told that 20 volunteers were needed for an experiment to study task performance under conditions of great anxiety. It was now well past midterm, and this experiment would be conducted in 15 minutes at the beginning of this class period. Before the students volunteered, they were told that they would receive a full 1 hour credit for their 15 minutes of participation. As was the convention, teaching assistants picked out the first 20 students who raised their hands. The students were reminded, as always, that they could choose to stop participating at any time during the experiment, but they would receive no credit if they stopped.
All students in the Introduction to Psychology course were required to participate in at least 5 hours of faculty and graduate student experiments before the end of the term. They were given a minimum of 1 hour credit for any experiment that lasted up to an hour, 2 hours credit for any experiment that lasted up to 2 hours and so on. Most of the experiments took about an hour, which required most students to participate in five different experiments during the term. This experiment, as with all of the others in which students volunteered for participation, was approved by the University's IRB.
The 20 students positioned themselves at desks on the stage in the front of the room. Each desk had a computer screen, keyboard and a four-inch red indicator light that sat on the front right corner of the desk. The participants' desks faced the class. All participants and indicator lights were visible to the 100 students in the audience. A large screen behind the participants was visible to the audience.
An apparatus was connected to the skin of the participants by electrodes and a blood pressure cuff. Once the apparatus was connected, participants were told that the apparatus would measure sexually deviant responses and that the red light on their desks would flash when the instruments noted sexual responses.
Participants were asked to complete a standard test on their computer screens that asked them to chronologically rank events. The test was not difficult, but it required concentration to complete accurately. In the 10 minutes that the students were given to complete the task, pictures intermittently flashed on the computer screen in front of the subjects and simultaneously flashed on a large screen in front of the class. The participants and audience were told if the instruments measured a sexual response, a red light set on the table in front of the participant would illuminate. Thus, everyone in the room could see the picture and whether each subject responded in a sexual way or not.
In fact, the "sexual response" lights were controlled by a computer program set to illuminate randomly at participants' desks as the pictures were shown. The pictures included flowers and meadow settings as well as animals and pictures of attractive individuals of both genders. Teaching assistants, sitting in the audience, had been told to laugh when the red lights came on, which encouraged students in the audience to laugh as well.
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While it is allowable to require students to participate in experiments, this experiment is morally prohibited because volunteers are coerced into remaining in an anxiety-provoked experiment by receiving one hour's credit in 15 minutes.
*This case was adapted from Reagan, Charles. (1971). Ethics for Scientific Researchers 2nd Edition. Springfield, IL: Charles Thomas Publisher. p. 87.