Bioethics Blogs

Are religious research subjects a vulnerable population?

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

A recent study in the journal Psychology Science found that when people are thinking about God, they are more likely to state a willingness to participate in nonmoral,° risky behaviors such as skydiving, substance abuse, and speeding. To reach their conclusion, the researchers asked online participants to undertake a short writing task. Half of the participants were asked to incorporate words that reminded them of God and half did not.

The participants then took one of several scenario tests where they were asked their willingness to participate in risky behaviors. Those who had seen God-words were more likely to list willingness to participate in risky recreational behaviors.

One of the scenarios was about participating in a research study. Participants completed their writing assignment and then were offered a research task: (1) look at an extremely bright light that carried a risk of eye damage (macular degeneration). This required signing a waiver that the person was aware of the risks. They also would receive a financial bonus. Or (2) look at dark colors with no risk and no bonus and took 2 minutes more to complete. The reality is that both tasks were perfectly safe and after choosing, the subjects completed the task.

The results showed that participants who had been exposed to God-words on their writing task were more likely to choose the dangerous task than the safer one. The authors attribute this selection to a sense that the reminders made people feel they were protected from harm by God and so were more willing to undertake risk (this was measured in other related studies).

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.