Month: September 2014

Why are ethical standards higher in science than in business and media?

Facebook manipulates user content in the name of science? Scandalous! It manipulates user content in the name of profit? No worries! Want to run a Milgram study these days? Get bashed by your local ethics committee! Want to show it on TV? No worries. Why do projects which seek knowledge have higher ethical standards than projects which seek profit?

Over half a million people were this mouse.

Just as we were preparing to leave for our well-deserved summer holidays this year, research was shaken by the fall-out to a psychological study (Kramer et al., 2014) which manipulated Facebook content. Many scientists objected to the study’s lack of asking for ‘informed consent’, and I think they are right. However, many ordinary people objected to something else. Here’s how Alex Hern put it over at the guardian:

At least when a multinational company, which knows everything about us and controls the very means of communication with our loved ones, acts to try and maximise its profit, it’s predictable. There’s something altogether unsettling about the possibility that Facebook experiments on its users out of little more than curiosity.

Notice the opposition between ‘maximise profit’ which is somehow thought to be okay and ‘experimenting on users’ which is not. I genuinely do not understand this distinction. Suppose the study had never been published in PNAS but instead in the company’s report to share holders (as a new means of emotionally enhancing advertisements), would there have been the same outcry? I doubt it. Why not?

Having issues with TV experimentation versus scientific experimentation?

Was the double standard around the Facebook study the exception? I do not think so.  In the following youtube clip you see the classic Milgram experiment re-created for British TV. The participants’ task is to follow the experimentor’s instructions to electrocute another participant (who is actually an actor) for bad task performance. Electro shocks increase in strength until they are allegedly lethal. People are obviously distressed in this task.

Yesterday, the New Scientist called the classic Milgram experiment one of ‘the most unethical [experiments] ever carried out’. Why is this okay for TV? Now, imagine a hybrid case. Would it be okay if the behaviour shown on TV was scientifically analysed and published in a respectable journal? I guess that would somehow be fine. Why is it okay to run the study with a TV camera involved, not when the TV camera is switched off? This is not a rhetorical question. I actually do not grasp the underlying principle.

Why is ‘experimenting on people’ bad?

In my experience, ethical guidelines are a real burden on researchers. And this is a good thing because society holds researchers to a high ethical standard. Practically all modern research on humans involves strong ethical safe guards. Compare this to business and media. I do not understand why projects seeking private gains (profit for share holders) have a lower ethical standard than research. Surely, the generation of public knowledge is in the greater public interest than private profit making or TV entertainment.

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Kramer AD, Guillory JE, & Hancock JT (2014). Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111 (24), 8788-90 PMID: 24889601

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral Study of obedience The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67 (4), 371-378 : doi: 10.1037/h0040525

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picture: from

How to increase children’s patience in 5 seconds

A single act increases adults’ compliance with researchers. The same act makes students more likely to volunteer to solve math problems in front of others. Moreover, it makes four-year-olds more patient. What sounds like a miracle cure to everyday problems is actually the oldest trick in the book: human touch.

How do researchers know this? Here is one experiment. In a recently published study (Leonard et al., 2014), four and five year old children were asked to wait for ten minutes in front of candy. The experimenter told them to wait before eating the candy because he had to finish paperwork. How long would children wait before calling the experimenter in because they wanted to eat the candy earlier? Four-year-olds waited for about six minutes while five-year-olds waited for about eight minutes. The task was similar to the classic Marshmallow test shown in the video.


The positive effect of touch

However, it all depends on whether the experimenter gave children a friendly touch on the back during the request to wait. If she did, four-year-olds waited for seven minutes (versus 5 minutes without touch) and five-year-olds waited for nine minutes (versus seven minutes without touch). A simple, five-second-long touch made four-year-olds behave as patiently as five-year-olds. It’s surprising how simple and fast the intervention is.

Touch across the ages

This result nicely fits into a wider literature on the benefits of a friendly touch. Already back in the eighties Patterson and colleagues (1986) found that adults spent more time helping with the tedious task of scoring personality tests if they were touched by the experimenter. Interestingly, the touch on the shoulder was hardly ever reported as noteworthy. In the early noughties Gueguen picked this effect up and moved it to the real world. He showed that touch also increases adults’ willingness to help by watching after a large dog (Gueguen & Fisher-Loku, 2002) as well as students’ willingness to volunteer to solve a math problem in front of a class (Gueguen, 2004).

The reason underlying these effects remains a bit mysterious. Does the touch on the back reduce the anxiety of being faced with a new, possibly difficult, task? Does it increase the rapport between experimenter and experimental participant? Does it make time fly by because being touched feels good? Well, time will tell.

Touch your child?

There are obvious sexual connotations related to touching people, unfortunately this includes touching children. As a result, some schools in the UK have adopted a ‘no touch’ policy: teachers are never allowed to touch children. Research shows that such an approach comes at a cost: children behave less patiently when they are not touched. Should society deny itself the benefits of people innocently touching each other?


Guéguen N, & Fischer-Lokou J (2002). An evaluation of touch on a large request: a field setting. Psychological reports, 90 (1), 267-9 PMID: 11898995

Guéguen, N. (2004). Nonverbal Encouragement of Participation in a Course: the Effect of Touching Social Psychology of Education, 7 (1), 89-98 DOI: 10.1023/B:SPOE.0000010691.30834.14

Leonard JA, Berkowitz T, & Shusterman A (2014). The effect of friendly touch on delay-of-gratification in preschool children. Quarterly journal of experimental psychology (2006), 1-11 PMID: 24666195

Patterson, M., Powell, J., & Lenihan, M. (1986). Touch, compliance, and interpersonal affect Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 10 (1), 41-50 DOI: 10.1007/BF00987204