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An evaluation of the types of subjects used in social psychological research

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An evaluation of the types of subjects used in social psychological research Over the past few years there has been a growing concern about the validity of psychological research, due to the fact that an overwhelming majority of studies have used university and college students as subjects who have been tested in academic laboratories on tasks which are quite often academically orientated. Questions have been raised as to the extent to which findings derived from such studies can be said to predict the behaviour of the general population. It was not until around the 1960's that psychologists became more thoroughly committed to the laboratory style of experimentation and therefore more reliant on the undergraduate college students as research subjects. Before this, much research, especially in Social Psychology, had been conducted in both the field and the laboratory using a wide variety of subject populations and field locations. For example, Deutsch and Collins (1951) and Festinger, Schacher and Back (1950) investigated residents of housing projects, and Coch and French (1948) studied industrial workers in factories, whilst Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet (1948) investigated radio listeners and voters. These are just a few examples of the variety of field studies that were conducted before the experimental revolutions of the sixties. If you flick through a Social Psychology journal these days it won't be long before you get the distinct impression that the only kind of people of interest to many psychologists are members of the undergraduate student population.


FINDINGS I coded the subject population into eight categories (a) university undergraduates; (b) school children; (c) other students, (these included F.E college students, student teachers and nurses etc.); (d) members of the general public; (e) members of the public service sector (mainly police, nurses, health care teams and judges); (f) families; (g) psychiatric patients; (h) others ( writers,U.S Presidents, religious groups, prison inmates etc.). The proportions of the subject populations used in the above categories for all the journals articles surveyed, can be seen in Table I. TABLE I The sorts of people used as subjects in articles published in three prominent Social Psychology Journals. ________________________________________________________________ SUBJECTS BJSP EJSP JPSP 1981 91 1981 91 1981 91 ________________________________________________________________ University undergraduates 53% 49.9% 70.7% 50% 71% 79.2% School children 23.5% 32.2% 12.5% 21.9% 9.8% 3.9% Other students 8.8% _ _ 9.4% 1.0% _ Members of the general public _ 10.7% 6.3% _ 4.1% 9.9% members of the public sector _ _ 4.2% 6.2% 5.0% _ Families _ 3.6% _ _ 1.0% _ Psychiatric patients _ _ _ _ _ 2.0% Others 5.9% 3.6% 6.3% 12.5% 8.1% 4.9% ________________________________________________________________ The percentages were arrived at by adding up the total amount of times subjects were used in each category, then adding up all the category totals and dividing the amount by a 100, then by multiplying each category total by this amount to arrive at a percentage total.


This is associated with the differences found between the performance of true volunteers and students who have been coerced into participating in research. During my search through the journals it became increasingly apparent that a majority of the subjects (around 90%) who took part in research papers published in the (JPSP) did so because it was a requirement of their psychology course. This did not seem to apply to subjects used by researchers whose papers were published in the other two journals. It is still not clear to what extent, if at all, this factor might bias psychological findings, but it does need to be considered when generalising research findings. In summary it appears from my own study that a majority of Social Psychological research is conducted on undergraduate students, who are quite often enrolled in psychology courses. In reply to the questions I proposed at the beginning of this essay I would have to conclude, from the journals I have surveyed, that social psychologists are biased in their choice of subjects, but that this could be blamed on the accessibility of potential subjects. It would also appear that this subject biasing is a widespread problem. Finally it would be unwise of me to generalise my findings to all Social Psychologists research practice, since it might well be a prerequisite of the editorial journals I surveyed that a traditional mode of research should be used in all papers which they publish, hence the large proportion of student/subject population.

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