When most people think about research ethics in psychology, they take the perspective of the participants (subjects) of the study. And, usually, what comes to mind is some outrageous battery of experimental procedures involving electric shocks, brain vivisections, or some sort of unauthorized subliminal incursion into one’s private thoughts. The boring truth is that the vast majority of studies are about as scary as cheese and crackers.
But there’s another ethical issue that you may not be so familiar with, and that has to do with protecting the research assistants running the study, many of whom are undergraduate students. In the field of social psychology, this is often a very real issue indeed. Sometimes there are dangers involved that the scientists themselves, I suspect, have not thought through entirely.
For example, in one study from the mid-1980s, investigators staged a rape scene on a college campus in which a male research assistant appeared to be sexually assaulting a struggling female research assistant. The man leaped out from behind some bushes and grabbed the female roughly, one hand around her waist and the other over her mouth. The female screamed, “Help! Help! Please help me! You bastard! Rape! Rape!” The investigators wanted to know whether passersby—random people who had the bad fortune of stumbling across this troubling event—would heroically intervene and save the girl.
The short answer is people were more likely to help when they were in a group than alone. Not too surprising. But the findings aside, the study raises many interesting ethical questions. Among them, what if the witness was more heroic than the researchers anticipated and physically harmed the “rapist?” I imagine it would be difficult for the actors to outpace a speeding bullet in explaining the purpose of the study to a shoot-first-ask-questions-later type of character.
In an even earlier study in which research assistants were potentially placed in harm’s way, investigators in 1972 wanted to know how people on the street responded to being stared at. Perhaps “glared at” is a better way to describe the methods used in this particular study. In one version of the experiment, the research assistant pulled up in his motor scooter next to a car waiting at a red light and stared expressionlessly at the driver until the light turned green. In another version, the research assistant stood on the street corner, turned to face an approaching pedestrian, and again stared expressionlessly at this person’s face for an uncomfortable length of time.
As predicted, being stared at prompted people to ‘flee’ measurably faster than not being stared at. In the case of the motor scooter, car drivers who were in the staring condition stepped on the gas pedal harder when the light turned green than those in the control condition, as measured by the length of time it took them to cross the intersection. Likewise, pedestrians who were stared at also picked up their step.
Now, I happen to be a coward and would sheepishly avert my gaze if I thought an eight-year-old girl were giving me the evil eye. But there are plenty of people out there who do not take kindly to a stranger’s agonistic stares and the research assistants in these studies could have found themselves in a serious confrontation.
The fact that most people simply looked away and fiddled with their radios may have something to with the study being done in Kansas rather than, say, downtown L.A., but still it could have easily escalated to conflict.