An insider’s view of how public relations really works

Train wreck to be averted?

By Noel Turnbull • December 14, 2013 • Filed in: Blog

Regular readers will be familiar with the blog’s posts about the problems of replicability in social psychology research and the warnings by Nobel Laureate,Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) that the field had to get its act together or experience a train wreck.

For communicators the social psychology research on how people make choices, how they think and what motivates them, has probably been the most profound insight into how to frame communications in many years. For social marketers in particular the work has provided a new foundation for campaigns which hopefully will replace the crude, and largely ineffectual, programs run by so many governments in the past at the urgings of the health thought police.

In the last couple of months the World Medical Association has released its latest revision of Declaration of the Helsinki Ethical Principles for Medical Research Involving Human Subjects. The guidelines have the potential to avert the train wreck although they may well be unpopular with some researchers even though many have anticipated it and are already practicing what is proposed. The guidelines are directed towards all research involving human beings and Dr James Coyne, a Psychology Professor at the University of Pennsylvania has posted a blog item on the Mind the Brain PLOS site which explains the implications:  http://blogs.plos.org/mindthebrain/2013/10/20/revised-ethical-principles-have-profound-implications-for-psychological-research/

He said: “The second paragraph of the document notes that it is addressed primarily to physicians, but that others who are involved in medical research are encouraged to adopt the same principles. Based on the reception of past versions of the Declaration of Helsinki, it can be expected that the review of psychological research, whether or not is conducted in medical settings or with medical patients, will be held to the same standards. The revised standards thus have profound implications for the conduct of psychological research.” The full guidelines can be found at http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1760318

“What is radical is that the revised Declaration of Helsinki extends the ethical requirement that trials be registered to cover all research, not just randomized clinical trials. Does that mean that all social psychology lab studies and even correlational observational studies be registered? The revised declaration seems to be requiring that, but it would be difficult to imagine the requirement taking hold anytime soon.”

“It remains to be seen just in what form this expansion of registration will be accommodated, but it has profound implications for transparency and replicability of psychological research. Even if the revised declaration is not enforced to the letter in psychological research, it will set new standards for this research’s evaluation,” Dr Coyne said.

There are still other problems to be dealt with. Many of the research subjects are university students, often in psychology programs, which no doubt skews findings a bit. We know enough about how people cheat on others and themselves to think that some of them may intentionally game the experiments as well although that in itself is interesting. Many years ago, for instance, armed with a bit of Psych1, the blog argued with a recruiter about how to cheat on a questionnaire they were using. The reply: “of course you can, but you do realise it is designed to let us know if you are a cheat.”

But most importantly the entire area is still immensely important to anyone who wants to be an effective communicator and, with increased safeguards and rigour can be even more important. Incidentally, the role of behavioural economics and social psychology in PR program design and career development is a subject the blog will be addressing next week at the annual RMIT Media and Communications Awards and Prize-Giving night when the blog will be speaking to mark the 25th anniversary of the RMIT PR program. The brief-ish comments will be posted in the articles and speeches section of the site.

Note: The blog is grateful, as always, to John Spitzer for drawing attention to the Coyne post.