Psychology students carry out ‘unethical’ experiments

Teenage subjects asked to behave in potentially harmful ways, including having their sleep disrupted, report finds

School students' research for the psychology Higher has put their peers at risk, a report warns

As part of the Higher psychology qualification in Scotland, students are asked to undertake a research report that includes their own “primary research” on a topic they have studied, from sleep and dreams to conformity and obedience. The report is worth a third of their final mark.

However,  it has been found that these teenage researchers are putting “at risk of harm” their peers whom they have recruited for these experiments.

A report published by exam body the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), which summarises how candidates performed in Higher psychology in 2018-19, says that students had looked into sleep deprivation by asking their fellow pupils, for example, to expose themselves to blue light or to consume stimulants such as caffeine before going to sleep.

This was “unethical”, it warns, because it could potentially disrupt participants’ sleep routine.


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The report also says the researchers had potentially placed their subjects in harm's way by: showing them videos of road accidents to test the accuracy of eyewitness testimony; inducing stress by the application of unpleasant noises; giving participants their results on a test of prejudice; and requiring them to solve “unsolvable puzzles”.

The risks of students' Higher psychology research

The report adds that “a significant number of candidates across a variety of centres” submitted "unethical reports" that replicated conformity experiments along the lines of those conducted by the psychologists Arthur Jenness and Solomon Asch.

In 1932, Jenness was the first psychologist to study conformity. He asked participants to guess the number of beans in a jar and examined the extent to which they changed their answers following group discussion.

In 1951, Asch also wanted to better understand conformity and group pressure, so he devised an experiment that involved participants being asked in a group questions with obvious answers. However, when the questions were being asked there was only one genuine participant and seven or eight plants or stooges, who agreed their answers beforehand.

Asch found that approximately one in four subjects successfully withstood this form of social pressure, around one in 20 completely succumbed, while the remainder conformed to the majority's clearly incorrect opinion only some of the time. 

The Higher psychology course report says that: “A number of candidates across a range of centres conducted experiments that potentially put their participants at risk of harm. In the main, this occurred when participants were requested by student researchers to behave in ways which could potentially cause physical/psychological harm, discomfort or stress.

"The use of group discussion as a way of measuring conformity in replications of the Jenness study continues to be used. This is unethical as group discussion may uncover large differences between participant estimations, which may cause distress within those whose guesses differed from the norm. This is a particular risk with groups who are in their teenage years, as many Higher assignment participants are. Other ways of measuring conformity, such as fictitious estimate tables, could be considered.”

The report also raises concerns about the questionnaires students were issuing, some of which asked fellow pupils personal questions “about mental health, sleep disorders and prescribed medication”, as well as "invasive" questions about prejudice, and their views on their own appearance.

The report notes that there were a number of breaches of confidentiality, although these had reduced compared with previous years.

It concludes that “candidates must be encouraged to think from the perspective of their participants when devising their procedures”, and it highlights the British Psychological Society (BPS) Code of Ethics and Conduct.

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