Methodological differences between academic and media-based research

The other night while flipping channels on TV, I came across the show What Would You Do? on ABC. For those of you who have never seen it, WWYD is a hidden-camera show that places people in a wide variety of scenarios to see how they would react. The premise is that people often say they would perform a given action hypothetically–whether helping an injured stranger on the street or calling out a person stealing from a store–but they rarely go through with such actions when actually in that situation. For example, take the story of Kitty Genovese, which led to what is now known as the “bystander effect,” whereby people tend to not offer their help during an emergency situation because they assume someone else will help. The show tends to deal with a wide variety of ethical issues–none quite as serious as witnessing a murder and seeing whether people respond–ranging from witnessing a young, intoxicated woman being lured out of a bar by a stranger to seeing a waiter discriminate against a gay couple.

The episode I saw included a segment on the dilemma of whether to tell a friend when you witness his/her significant other cheating. The WWYD crew recruited a couple and created a situation where a friend of the couple saw the man at a restaurant cozying up with another woman. Then they had the woman supposedly being cheated on come to the restaurant for lunch with the friend who just witnessed the transgressions to see what the friend would do. The embedded clip is from 20/20 but has highlights from the episode I watched.

As yet another sign that I have spent too much time in the ivory tower, my immediate reaction upon seeing this clip was, “no IRB (institutional review board) would have approved that study!” For me, it harkened back to Milgram’s experiment on the extent to which individuals obey orders from authority figures. Obviously these experiments (and I use “experiment” quite loosely when talking about WWYD) were dealing with entirely different questions; however, Milgram’s experiment is one of the foundations for dealing with questions of ethics in research, and especially about justifying placing participants under extreme emotional stress.

Merely watching the woman who was dealing with this dilemma made me uncomfortable, for she was being placed in quite an uncomfortable position and it was clear she was under emotional duress. Try placing yourself in her position for a moment and consider how difficult it would be for you had you just learned that one of your closest friend’s significant other was cheating on her. Then consider how you would feel when you learn the “joke” is on you and not only did all your friends know the situation was a sham but now the whole nation can see you go through the process of freaking out. (Not only that, but in the video, the woman offers her friend a Xanax as she tells her the bad news; had her friend not had her own prescription for Xanax, she could have potentially be in trouble with the law for violating federal regulations regarding transfer of controlled substances. Yes, I’m sure that wouldn’t have made the final cut,  but still, not cool.)

At the same time, there’s a flip side to my academic-derived disgust at the TV show’s sensationalized take on conducting research, and that is that not all questions can be answered through IRB-derived studies. Sometimes it’s faster, easier, and cheaper to conduct your research through a media or corporate organization. There are plenty of non-academic research organizations whose research I have the utmost respect for, even though they don’t go through a rigorous review-board-driven process before conducting their studies (and I worked for one for three years). Even without an IRB, they most likely follow an internal set of ethical guidelines when conducting their research.

The thing that concerns me is when your average person can’t distinguish between research that is rigorous and methodical and that which is done, for lack of a better-word, half-assed. Maybe WWYD takes tons of precautions, provides thorough debriefings, takes every effort to ensure their unknowing participants don’t experience any post-experiment trauma, etc. I don’t question their desire to break ground or previously unstudied territory, but I do know that if I had been the woman in the video, I would have been pissed at a lot of people–and especially the friends who set me up–for a very long time. Was their findings worth the emotional stress to this woman went through? I’m not sure.

This leaves me with a lot of questions. When is this kind of research justified? Are there questions that only academia (or only non-academia) should tackle? Are there ways to conduct experiments such as this that could answer the same questions while being acceptable to an IRB (even if they’re not being submitted to one)? If so, is it unethical to conduct the original experiment?

I have a feeling I’m going to be thinking about this for a long time.

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