According to a recent article published in The Wall Street Journal, many feel that psychological research departments on college campuses operate with too narrow a testing pool. The article asserts that the strict use of college students as study subjects provides only a slim demographic for research, ultimately limiting research findings.
At a university like Cornell, where students always have the opportunity to sign up for psychological experiments, the controversy is especially compelling.
“Psychologists have traditionally always used the population that is most available to them,” said Prof. David Smith, psychology.
On campus, that population is comprised of students with similar academic strengths who differ only slightly from one another in age. Furthermore, students are frequently offered credit — and often extra credit — in exchange for their participation in the experiments. Those participating are therefore, in large part, the students enrolled in classes focusing on psychology or the social sciences, further constraining the testing pool for psychological research.
Considering the constricted demographic, it is difficult to grasp just how the results of these experiments are generalized across all humans.
“It seems that on the surface, something is wrong here,” said Prof. Tom Gilovich, chair of the psychology department. “Of course you would think that you have to go beyond college students. But actually, there isn’t anything wrong here.”
Gilovich explained that the psychology department at Cornell is not one of applied psychology. Instead, it is experimental in nature. According to Gilovich, the pivotal difference between the two is that the former researches what “does” happen, whereas the latter tests for what “can” happen.
“[In a scientific department], one tests broad theories about how the mind works,” Gilovich said.
If a certain phenomenon can occur, then the probability increases that it will occur in more wide-ranging samples. Gilovich cited the following example: if a researcher is testing the capability of a non-human primate to employ speech, he or she would not randomly select a chimpanzee. Instead, the researcher would pick the smartest one, to verify that the trend was even possible. With knowledge from the original scientific phase of the experiment, the researcher could then expound upon the data.
In experiments similar to Gilovich’s example, the limited population utilized on campus would not be a constricting factor for psychological research.
“This research is about testing the core idea of a theory,” Gilovich said. “Then you take that theory and apply it to the rest of the world.”
Gilovich’s point, however, does not confront the ethical question at hand.
At Cornell and elsewhere, students are offered academic credit, as well as small sums of money to participate in these experiments. From one vantage point, this type of “bribery” seems questionable. One could say that offering perks in return for a study subject might attract disinterested students whose performances are consequently unnatural. Students who are interested solely in their gains might demonstrate a lack of effort in thinking exercises or performance assessments.
In this case, a more varied pool would be favorable.
“We should be conducting studies with other people [besides students], but we would need more money and that would just be more difficult to do,” said Paul Stillman ’09, a third-year research assistant.
When students deliver a legitimate performance in the experiment, however, it fits the scientific research scheme quite nicely: students are at the fingertips of researchers, and the results can then possibly be applied to a wider demographic.
“In a well-constructed experiment, with a conscientious experimenter, students learn a lot,” Gilovich said. “When it’s done well, it’s a win-win.”