Many psychological studies rely on participants giving up their time to take part in experiments or fill out questionnaires. They take part because they are paid or because they are required as part of their university program. Beyond that, however, not much is known about what motivates people to take part in these studies.
Some participants may seek help – perhaps seeking a diagnosis for a mental health problem they are struggling with. A team of researchers in Poland theorized that taking part in psychological studies might be “considered as a cheap substitute or alternative to getting professional help”.
To this end, they set out to find whether participants in psychological studies were more likely to have personality disorders or to experience depression or anxiety.
The results are published in an open access journal PLOS ONE.
“Researchers often take it for granted that how they advertise their studies and who they recruit doesn’t really influence their results,” the study authors wrote.
“In our research, we have shown that those with more personality pathology are more interested in studies where they can express their trauma and may be more likely to volunteer for studies.”
Izabela Kaźmierczak and colleagues at Maria Grzegorzewska University in Warsaw, Poland, conducted several studies, involving a total of 947 participants (62 percent of whom were women), comparing people who had previously taken part in psychology studies with those who had never taken part in the study. studies.
They found that participants who had previously taken part in the study displayed symptoms found in those with personality disorders, depression, or anxiety.
There are many types of personality disorders – including borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder – but, in short, someone with the personality disorder thinks, feels, behaves, or relates to other people differently from those without. They may, for example, blame people for something, or behave aggressively and unpredictably.
Why is it important
What the new study reveals is a potentially worrying issue of self-selection. Because participants in research choose which studies to take, research results may be unduly influenced by the large number of participants of a particular type who take part. Study bias is a serious problem.
Like many other disciplines, psychology research is designed and conducted primarily in universities. Unlike many disciplines, psychology requires human participation and, as such, students form a useful subject group for drawing.
This has led many in the field to wonder how research conducted on mostly 18 to 24 year old western students could provide relevant findings to any population other than 18 to 24 year old western students.
Research has to be valid, and if we can’t claim that our findings relate to the wider population (so-called “generalizability”), we have a serious problem. What this new study shows is that our findings may be influenced by the psychological traits of the people we test.
However, we cannot control students who give their time to follow our procedures. For example, we cannot provide instructions on a recruitment poster that read: “Those with symptoms of a personality disorder should not apply.” But we can and should be more careful in choosing our participants.
What we need to do is do research with a large enough number of people, repeatable work, that can give us more confidence that our findings have relevance off-campus.
All science has a bumpy road to walk, and psychology has definitely gone down it in recent years.
Experiments that were once considered groundbreaking have failed to produce the same results when repeated by other psychologists. This is known as a “replication crisis” or a “reproducibility crisis”.
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And the shockwave caused by the scientific betrayal of Diederik Stapel, a Dutch psychologist who discovered the data and even concocted the entire experiment, is still being felt. Psychology’s reputation has certainly taken a hit.
But psychologists are working carefully to develop transparency and techniques that we hope will help us win back the trust of the wider scientific community.
What this new paper shows is that the participants themselves may have chosen for themselves – and, as a consequence, our findings could again be called into question. We might think we are drawing from as much of the general population as possible to make the results generalizable to the wider population, but that may not be the case.
These findings should set off warning bells for those working to develop psychology’s reliability and reputation. It needs to be taken seriously.
The results tell us more formally something we should already know. Those of us who engage in psychological research involving participants drawn largely from the pool of psychology students must be very careful in our recruitment strategies.
We may, for example, need to be careful about designing research that may not be influenced by the personalities or moods of the participants, or we may need to assess the participants who take part in our research. For example, the authors of this recent study suggest screening participants who have taken part in previous psychology studies.
Most importantly, we must be very careful about the big claims we make after we publish how our “breakthrough” research relates to the wider population we wish to study. Such claims, it seems, cannot stand scrutiny.
Nigel Holt, Professor of Psychology, Aberystwyth University
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.