Psychology research experiment sparks insight at Villanova

Agnes Cho

If you have taken Introduction to Psychology or are taking it now, you are probably aware of the 4.5-hour research requirement that must be fulfilled in order to avoid an “incomplete” or “unsatisfactory” status for the course on your transcript. This research requirement is to be met by participating in written, visual or even auditory surveys/activities for varying lengths of time. Typically, students sign up for a study that takes place during a convenient time, and upon showing up for the study, a kind of detached countenance, sprinkled with a touch of not-too-subtle apathy, emerges, permeating into the way they participate in the study as well. 

In this kind of setting, the student participants have only one thing in mind: to get this thing done as fast as possible so that they can have some of this time to themselves. Because the time requirement for a particular study is officially considered to be met even if it has been completed in less time than that which was designated upon sign-up, students feel the strong motivation to complete their task quickly rather than considerately, which leads to responses that lack much thoughtfulness, but moreover, a lack of thoughtfulness about the study itself, including all its implications. 

I was also guilty of this toward the end of last semester when I, as well as most other students taking Intro to Psych that spring, was rushing to complete the last of the four and a half hours of psych research before finals week arrived. However, the very last study I participated in began to plant new seeds of questioning in an otherwise typical research session. Without too much concern about what exactly it would ask of me, I had signed up for a study focusing on aesthetics, feeling fortunate that I had even found a study that fit into my schedule during a time at the end of the semester when everyone was checking the sign-up website religiously to complete their research requirements. Thus, when I showed up at the right place on the day and time of the scheduled research study, I had no expectations or even any conscious thought that lingered on the study. I found myself, as I had before, thinking about other things: about what my friends and I would be doing for dinner that night, how much homework I had to do after this thing was over, how the Spanish professor in the classroom across the hall of Tolentine was explaining something that was beyond my high school level of knowledge in that language. 

However, after the other student and I scheduled for the same study were finally led into a room and seated at desks that had the survey already laid out before us, the research conductor began reading out the instructions for the study, and I found myself suddenly investing all my attention into the study that had only fleetingly grazed my consciousness several moments ago. I realized that I was being tasked with disclosing my opinions based on what I considered a questionable topic—I was, essentially, asked to engage in a legitimized “hot or not” rating activity. 

The study showed gray-scale pictures of individuals and asked test subjects to rate them on a scale of one to five. At this point, I considered whether I should not participate at all and just sit quietly until the conductor dismissed me (which was a viable option, fully within my explicit rights as a participant of a Villanovan psych research study) or participate despite how strange and even objectionable I thought the task was. A larger question about even mildly controversial research in general surfaced—is all research justified in the name of science and the knowledge that will be channeled toward the greater good, even if there is a chance that it will be exploited, or must some knowledge remain unknown to us, because the way to discover it is not ethically clear the way some other things are? Before I could properly open the debate in my mind, I decided that if anything, I could think about it later and could begin to abide by the conclusion I will have drawn afterward. I rated the majority of individuals as a four or five, deciding that that would be my own subtle form of rebellion until I could figure out what exactly I thought about the study as a whole. 

What I realized afterward, however, is that the fact that I felt compelled to rebel, even in that petty way, pointed to my opposition to the task of the study from the very beginning, whether or not I was conscious of it, simply because of the way it reduced a representation of a person to a mere number that valued him or her based on physical appearance. But according the opposite perspective, if the study was meant to reveal valuable information about human beauty, I had skewed my own results by predetermining everyone as objectively attractive, even if I did not believe this was the case. What was I to make of this situation?

The only conclusive piece of thought at this point is that based on either biological, natural standards or beauty or social constructions that hold themselves as the ideal of beauty, we do see some individuals as being more beautiful than others. This is one arena in which equality is not as clear-cut as in others, since beauty does belong to all things in existence, but comparative beauty renders itself a qualitative entity existing in different things in varying degrees. So, to compare one specific illustration of beauty, in this case the proportions of a face according to societal criteria of beauty, among different individuals possessing different kinds of unique beauty, is to drastically minimize the definition of beauty itself, since this is the only beauty we are choosing to acknowledge. 

With regard to the study in which I participated, I decided that the conclusions and knowledge derived from the surveys could inevitably be used for good, or be corrupted for other agendas. The results (hypothetically) determining that the “width of an attractive face should not exceed the length” (or some other nonsense), could explain biological phenomena and expose the reasons why only certain faces are used to sell products, or they could create a narrow, homogenized standard of beauty fed by society and advertising companies and perpetuated by practices such as cosmetics and plastic surgery. 

However, I realized that this was the case for all knowledge. Any knowledge at all could be used justly or unjustly, to serve the greater good or a powerful party’s personal goals. But this does not mean the pursuit of that knowledge should be discouraged. As long as no one is directly or physically harmed and the methodology is not unethical, studies can be done in the name of explanation and improvement, not exploitation.