Psychology has a serious problem. You may have heard about its over-dependence on WEIRD participants – that is, those from Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich Democracies. More specifically, as regular readers will be aware, countless psychology studies involve undergraduate students, particularly psych undergrads. Apart from the obvious fact that this limits the generalisability of the findings, Edward Witt and his colleagues provide evidence in a new paper for two further problems, this time involving self-selection biases.
Just over 500 Michigan State University undergrads (75 per cent were female) had the option, at a time of their choosing during the Spring 2010 semester, to volunteer either for an on-line personality study, or a face-to-face version. The data collection was always arranged for Wednesdays at 12.30pm to control for time of day/week effects. Also, the same personality survey was administered by computer in the same way in both experiment types, it’s just that in the face-to-face version it was made clear that the students had to attend the research lab, and an experimenter would be present.
Just 30 per cent of the sample opted for the face-to-face version. Predictably enough, these folk tended to score more highly on extraversion. The effect size was small (d=-.26) but statistically significant. Regards more specific personality traits, the students who chose the face-to-face version were also more altruistic and less cautious.
What about choice of semester week? As you might expect, it was the more conscientious students who opted for dates earlier in the semester (r=.-.20). What’s more, men were far more likely to volunteer later in the semester, even after controlling for average personality difference between the sexes. For example, 18 per cent of week one participants were male compared with 52 per cent in the final, 13th week.
In other words, the kind of people who volunteer for research will likely vary according to the time of semester and the mode of data collection. Imagine you used false negative feedback on a cognitive task to explore effects on confidence and performance. Participants tested at the start of semester, who are typically more conscientious and motivated, are likely to be affected in a different way than participants who volunteer later in the semester.
This isn’t the first time that self-selection biases have been reported in psychology. A 2007 study, for example, suggested that people who volunteer for a ‘prison study’ are likely to score higher than average on aggressiveness and social dominance, thus challenging the generalisability of Zimbardo’s seminal work. However, despite the occasional study highlighting these effects, there seems to be little enthusiasm in the social psychological community to do much about it.
So what to do? The specific issues raised in the current study could be addressed by sampling throughout a semester and replicating effects using different data collection methods. ‘Many papers based on college students make reference to the real world implications of their findings for phenomena like aggression, basic cognitive processes, prejudice, and mental health,’ the researchers said. ‘Nonetheless, the use of convenience samples place limitations on the kinds of inferences drawn from research. In the end, we strongly endorse the idea that psychological science will be improved as researchers pay increased attention to the attributes of the participants in their studies.’
Witt, E., Donnellan, M., and Orlando, M. (2011). Timing and selection effects within a psychology subject pool: Personality and sex matter. Personality and Individual Differences, 50 (3), 355-359 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2010.10.019