Your crash course in Russian roulette research ethics

“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.

Footage from The Office

Footage from The Office

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Informed consent. Participants should fully understand the possible negative effects of taking part in this experiment.
  5. The experiment has been recorded in audio-visual format; the participant’s identity is clearly captured and identifiable.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.


When People Wear Apple Wearables

I’ve been asked to “critique or analyse a text” for you (twice – look for the next one to be coming up in a few days!) Aside from the woeful vagueness of this instruction, the task seems straightforward. I would have liked to have chosen a movie or a book, because the term “text” in university literally means any vehicle for communicating ideas, but I’ve gone with this YouTube video from BuzzFeedVideo called People Try The Apple Watch For The First Time.

This is a survey of two women going to the Apple event showcasing the imminent Apple Watch range. The video is comprised of three main features: prior to the event the subjects give their impressions of what this product will be like; during the event they are able to try on the watches and comment on the features; and after the event they reflect on the product and their overall experiences. Interspersed throughout are plenty of B-roll shots of the watches, the event guests, the presentation given by the Apple representatives, and so on.

When critiquing a study, there are two main concepts to be considered:

1. Reliability: does the study have the ability to be reproduced with the same results?
2. Validity: does the study measure what it purports to measure?

So, would I call this text reliable? If you were able to wipe these women’s minds and relaunch this event, I’m sure the results would be the same. Or if there was an Apple Timemachine to perform it again. That being said, I don’t think the subjects would respond 100% with the same comments, as the data is completely qualitative and based on their subjective opinions. It’s probable the video is another marketing ploy for Apple, as BuzzFeed has a huge audience and this particular genre of presentation would make the product line more appealing to its viewers. If this was the case, any poor reviews would have been cut from the video; there is obvious editing throughout.

I think the text does not fully achieve its goal. The research question would be something like, “What do people think of the new Apple Watch?” In this case, two women are not a thorough sample. The women are from different ethnic backgrounds but they do not represent a whole sample of the population. However, they are people. Just… not enough people, in my opinion.

Regardless, I found the video to be a quick and entertaining glimpse of a forthcoming piece of technology that I personally think is a joke. The structure was logical with the three parts of before, during and after. The opening clip was a slightly confusing choice, particularly because of the spoken content. It did not seem immediately relevant. My favourite section was one of the subjects reflecting on her previous conceptions about the product and how the experience changed her mind. I liked that we were able to see some of her context prior to the experience.

It was interesting for me to consider a video such as this as a form of research. I probably won’t get the watch though. I’m not made of money!

Interview with a communications and media student

What is media research? 

It kills me how open-ended this question is, especially when this course is about asking people questions and figuring out exactly what questions you should be asking. I might start this blog with an old classic.

Before the lecture, what did you think research was?

The word “research” always conjures a pretty vivid image in my head of me in a library with my head bent over a book. Usually, the book’s language is quite obtuse I’m combing through it for some semblance of a message I can use in an essay. I might even picture the Summons home page (for those of you not studying at University of Wollongong, Summons is the catalogue system for our library).

How did the lecture change your mind?

I had never considered asking my friend what brand of nail polish she was wearing, or what she knew about the guy sitting across from us, to be research. It is a kind of research, one Marion McCutcheon labels as “everyday” research. This kind of research is different from the kind I was picturing before; it is often flawed due to it being subjective, mostly common sense, casually acquired, sometimes intuitive and always selective. Everyday research may suit my needs but it is by no means something an academic paper can stand on.

Academic research has greater concerns in veracity. It must be as objective as possible in order to have relevance in the real world, i.e. beyond my own life. This means the processes required are more protracted and systematic.

A research question might lend themselves to a specific kind of research: quantitative versus qualitative. So, if I am wondering about the percentage of Australian uni students who use torrenting to access television shows, this is going to require quantitative research. I’m going to need to survey a big sample of uni students in order to have as accurate as possible data. If I am wondering why they use torrenting, this is going to require qualitative research, often in the form of a questionnaire or interview.

What aspect of the media would you like to research?

Funny you ask that, I was just talking about how Australian uni students access their television shows. I am an extremely passionate fan of many television series. As an Australian who has to deal with the delay in transmission of shows from the US and UK to Australia, I personally utilise many different access points in order to get my fill. I’m curious to see how others like me access their shows and what this means for the shows, copyright, profit and legal recourse.