An Evaluation Of The Types Of Subject sAn Evaluation Of The Types Of Subjects Used In Social psychological research Over the past few years there has been a growing concern about the validity of psychological research, due to the fact that an overwhelming majority of studies have used university and college students as subjects who have been tested in academic laboratories on tasks which are quite often academically orientated. Questions have been raised as to the extent to which findings derived from such studies can be said to predict the behaviour of the general population. It was not until around the 1960’s that psychologists became more thoroughly committed to the laboratory style of experimentation and therefore more reliant on the undergraduate college students as research subjects. Before this, much research, especially in Social Psychology, had been conducted in both the field and the laboratory using a wide variety of subject populations and field locations.
For example, Deutsch and Collins (1951) and Festing er, Schachter and Back (1950) investigated residents of housing projects, and Cock and French (1948) studied industrial workers in factories, whilst Lazars feld, Berenson, and Gaudet (1948) investigated radio listeners and voters. These are just a few examples of the variety of field studies that were conducted before the experimental revolutions of the sixties. If you flick through a Social Psychology journal these days it won’t be long before you get the distinct impression that the only kind of people of interest to many psychologists are members of the undergraduate student population. There would be no cause for concern if the student population was a truly representative sample of the population in general, but there is evidence to suggest that they do differ in highly significant ways from the general public. Also there has been some concern over the performance of these subjects, as many of the students used have been coerced into taking part in experiments because it is part of their psychology course requirement.
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Cox and Sipprelle (1971) discovered that the volunteer status of their subjects played a crucial role in the kind of results they collected. For example in their study, in which verbal reinforcement was used in the operant conditioning of heart rates, they found that there was a clear reinforcement effect in subjects who had volunteered to take part in the experiment compared to the subjects who had been coerced into taking part. The difference in these results again questions the external validity of the vast amount of psychological research in which psychology students have been used as subjects. The above problems in subject selection begs the question, how biased are social psychologists in choosing subjects to participate in their experimental conditions? And is this biasing a universal problem or is it just associated with research in certain countries.
METHOD In order to answer the above questions I analysed the types of subjects used in all the articles published in three of the most prominent Social Psychological journals, during the years of 1981 and 1991. The journals used were, British Journal of Social Psychology (BJSP) vol… 20 and 30, European Journal of Social Psychology (EJSP) vol… 11 and 21, and the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP) vol… 40 and 60. My reason for examining these three different journals was to see whether there was a variation between the subject population used in different continents.
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I also wanted to discover whether there had been any changes made in subject selection over a ten year period, which is why I examined all the articles published in both the 1981 and 1991 editions of the above journals. FINDINGS I coded the subject population into eight categories (a) university undergraduates; (b) school children; (c) other students, (these included F. E college students, student teachers and nurses etc. ); (d) members of the general public; (e) members of the public service sector (mainly police, nurses, health care teams and judges); (f) families; (g) psychiatric patients; (h) others (writers, U. S Presidents, religious groups, prison inmates etc. ).
The proportions of the subject populations used in the above categories for all the journals articles surveyed, can be seen in Table I. TABLE I The sorts of people used as subjects in articles published in three prominent Social Psychology Journals. SUBJECTS BJSP EJSP JPSP 1981 91 1981 91 1981 91 University undergraduates 53% 49. 9% 70. 7% 50% 71% 79. 2% School children 23.
5% 32. 2% 12. 5% 21. 9% 9.
8% 3. 9% Other students 8. 8% 9. 4% 1. 0% Members of the general public 10. 7% 6.
3% 4. 1% 9. 9% members of the public sector 4. 2% 6. 2% 5.
0% Families 3. 6% 1. 0% Psychiatric patients 2. 0% Others 5. 9% 3. 6% 6.
3% 12. 5% 8. 1% 4. 9% The percentages were arrived at by adding up the total amount of times subjects were used in each category, then adding up all the category totals and dividing the amount by a 100, then by multiplying each category total by this amount to arrive at a percentage total. Inspection of Table I reveals that a majority of researchers use a high proportion of students as subjects, with American psychologists using a particularly high percentage.
Also the proportions of subjects used in each category has not fluctuated much over the last ten years. On the other hand British psychologists do appear to use far fewer students as subjects than do psychologists from the other countries. Over all, there is an extremely small percentage of studies conducted on members of the general public. DISCUSSION I shall now go on to discuss the implications of using such a large proportion of students in research. The first problem I shall address is the fact that such a high percentage of studies are conducted on such a small percentage of the general population, for example, in Britain university students only account for around 3% of the total population yet constitute 50% of the subjects used in psychological research. The group also provides, what is probably, a poor representation of the population as a whole.
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Members for instance generally possess a higher than average level of intelligence, and the majority belong to a fairly narrow age group. What’s more the middle and upper classes are represented to a disproportionately high degree. These factors would also apply to the American and European students who were cited in the journal articles. It has been suggested that if researchers want to increase the validity of research conducted on students, which is then generalised to the public they need to be able to identify the ways in which students in the laboratory differ from people in everyday life and extrapolate the differences between these two. An alternative, and perhaps a more feasible solution would be to conduct their research on a broader range of subject population. There is a further biasing effect, which may also limit the degree to which student data can be generalised.
This is associated with the differences found between the performance of true volunteers and students who have been coerced into participating in research. During my search through the journals it became increasingly apparent that a majority of the subjects (around 90%) who took part in research papers published in the (JPSP) did so because it was a requirement of their psychology course. This did not seem to apply to subjects used by researchers whose papers were published in the other two journals. It is still not clear to what extent, if at all, this factor might bias psychological findings, but it does need to be considered when general ising research findings. In summary it appears from my own study that a majority of Social Psychological research is conducted on undergraduate students, who are quite often enrolled in psychology courses.
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In reply to the questions I proposed at the beginning of this essay I would have to conclude, from the journals I have surveyed, that social psychologists are biased in their choice of subjects, but that this could be blamed on the accessibility of potential subjects. It would also appear that this subject biasing is a widespread problem. Finally it would be unwise of me to generalise my findings to all Social Psychologists research practice, since it might well be a prerequisite of the editorial journals I surveyed that a traditional mode of research should be used in all papers which they publish, hence the large proportion of student / subject population. BIBLIOGRAPHY Oakes, W (1972) External Validity and the use of real people as subjects. American Psychologist Vol. 27 P 959-962.
Sears, D. (1986) College sophomores in the laboratory Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Vol. 51 P 515-30 Schultz, D (1969) The human subject in psychological research Psychological Bulletin Vol. 72. P 214-218. REFERENCES British Journal of Social Psychology vol.
20 and 30. European Journal of Social Psychology vol. 11 and 21. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology vol.
40 and 60.