“How about we get a subject and then put the subject to sleep, and then cover him with blood and chicken feathers and then put a gun in his hand and then scream inside of his ear.”
Because that’s not a recipe for disaster.
This is a fictional experiment carried out by a psychologist at a university in the United States, from the movie The Five-Year Engagement (2012). Ming originally presents this research idea at a bar where all the residents in the post-doctorate psychology program are messing with the new girl, Violet. It is taken as a joke but, at the end of the movie, the video shown below is emailed to Violet.
(I apologise for the poor quality of this video.)
There are a number of fundamental aspects to consider when conducting any kind of research study that requires human participation. I’m going to run through the ones mentioned in ‘Research Ethics in Media and Communication‘ in relation to this fictional experiment.
- Voluntary participation. It’s unclear in the clip whether the participant is voluntary. I suspect he may have been persuaded to take part by some kind of compensation from Ming.
- Power relations between researchers and their participants. As mentioned before, it is unclear why this man has partaken in this experiment. It is possible he’s homeless and was lead to believe he would have somewhere to sleep or some monetary compensation for his role.
- Do no harm to participants. When the experiment was first suggested, Ming’s peers consider the experiment outrageous because of the exact nature of the experiment. Even if the participant did not harm himself with the gun upon waking (as we do not know if it is loaded), he would definitely suffer some kind of mental or emotional trauma. This goes directly against any guidelines an ethics committee may have in place.
- Informed consent. Participants should fully understand the possible negative effects of taking part in this experiment.
- The experiment has been recorded in audio-visual format; the participant’s identity is clearly captured and identifiable.
- The aforementioned video has been shared beyond the scope of any confidentiality agreement, as Violet is no longer an employee at the same place where Ming works. It is also possible Ming performed the experiment without the support of his supervisor or the university.
- Concealment and deception. This particular scenario requires the element of surprise in order to capture a genuine reaction to the stimulus. However, knowing the various stimuli involved, concealing the incorporation of blood and a gun and genuine surprise would create unethical scenario by jeopardising the safety of all involved. It is clear Ming has deceived the participant.
- We don’t know if the participant was debriefed but this example would definitely require debriefing as both concealment and deception were involved in the process.
Ethical considerations are not limited to this. Another set of principles apply to the publication of data from a research study as well. This result seems self-evident, rendering the experiment unnecessary and therefore cruel. This fictional character, Ming, got what he deserved.