A deliberative proposal for psychological experimentation

The field of social psychology is dominated by the experimental paradigm. The typical participant in social psychological experiments is an undergraduate that takes part in the experiment either because of course requirements or because there is some reward being offered. Voluntary or non-rewarded participation is rare. One could therefore say that participants are coerced into being researched.  Moreover and typically, experiments use deceptive methods in order to keep participants naive about what is going on.

While this state of affairs is perhaps most typical of psychological science it is not unfamiliar to other social sciences such as sociology or political science. From a deliberative democratic perspective, such an arrangement is anything but democratic or deliberative. Although mandatory ethics require that participants are debriefed after the experiment has taken place and then have an option to have their data withdrawn from the research record if they choose, an irreversible deliberative democratic breach has already taken place. The question is whether psychology departments could  approach the issue of experiment participation differently.

There are several reasons why psychology and other social science departments are dependent on undergraduates and their participation in experiments. One reason is pure pedagogical. Participation in an experiment gives first hand insight into the process. Undergraduates gain an experiential understanding of the process of experimentation and students who later choose a path in science have a better understanding of experimentation from a participant’s point of view. A second reason is more utilitarian in that it simply provides researchers with their object of study. A third reason could be said to be a more altruistic one in that both researcher and participant are contributing to further the understanding of human functioning in the world.

It is perhaps this last reason that social scientists could capitalise on in promoting a more deliberative way of gaining access to research participants. First year undergraduates normally have to participate in a stipulated number of experiments in order to received their grades. Could this be done deliberatively? I believe so. Why not have a lecture where students are informed about science, the way it is conducted and its dependence on people’s willingness to put themselves up as the objects of research? It could be argued that a dependence on willingness only leads to self-selection and, consequently, skewed or biased results. Whereas this could be true, the choice to withdraw one’s data after the fact can also lead to bias, as we don’t know whether there are any specificities to the people that refuse to have their data being used. In fact, the routine use of undergraduates as research participants is most certainly riddled with biases, as university students are anything but representative of the general population.

Perhaps a better way of obtaining the participation of students would be to have undergraduate students, and others, deliberating about the issue and whether they want to participate and therefore contribute to the advancement of scientific understanding of human behaviour. It is difficult to find a way for course credits to still be given for participation under this ‘opt in’ regime, but because the course credits under the existing scheme can be seen as illegitimate they can and should be dispensed with. A practice based on deliberative decision making rather than coercion teaches things about the practice of psychology that our students should be made to consider and although participation may fall in the first instance this should be no reason for continuing a practice that is illegitimate, simply because we haven’t managed to find a more legitimate way to ensure the students are keen to be involved in the advancement of their chosen field.  A non-negligible side-effect of such a procedure is that it would also entail a lesson in deliberative practice.