Could Reality Shows Become Reality Experiments?

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Reality Check

That was the question posed to APS Board Member Barbara A. Spellman, University of Virginia, who founded the APS Committee on Human Subject Protection. Spellman breaks down which reality shows would pass, which would not, and which would not even be considered.

The first question is, why don’t reality game shows have to get Institutional Review Board approval? The answer: They are not research. According to the Code of Federal Regulations, research studies are “systematic investigations designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.”

But certainly many reality shows touch on issues that could make great questions for behavioral researchers. So, if you were an experimenter with an unlimited budget, could you get IRB approval to run one of these reality shows as “research” and then publish your results in a leading psychology journal? For the most part, probably not. Here’s why.

The Reality Review
IRBs are charged with ensuring that research is conducted ethically, and one of the core values of ethical research is respect for the autonomy of the research participants. Participants must be told everything that might “reasonably be expected to influence willingness to participate.” That includes the goals of the research, what they will be doing, whether there are any risks or benefits of the study (both physical and psychological), and whether and how much they will be paid. The participants need to know that participation in the research is voluntary and that they can withdraw at any time without penalty.

Usually, this information is communicated with a consent form that the participant reads and signs before engaging in the study. However, sometimes studies can be run in which participants are not given all of this information up front — either something is left out or there is actual deception. Such deception must be necessary and justified and any potential harmful consequences of the deception must be ameliorable.

In addition, IRBs must consider the research question and carefully weigh the potential risks and benefits of the study. To take an extreme example: An experiment with a new drug that might lead to permanent brain damage might be allowable if the new drug were a cure for patients in terminal stages of cancer, but not if it were a cure for ingrown toenails.

So, suppose you proposed one of the shows below to your IRB. You are willing to give the participants a consent form. Would the shows fly?

Two programs would probably get through mostly intact. The first is “American Idol,” in which ambitious young pop singers perform in front of a panel and are judged instantly and often harshly about their abilities.

In the consent form you would tell the participants that they would be singing in front of judges that might judge them harshly — and that they might be made fun of in front of lots of people. As long as no deception was involved — for example, as long as Simon Cowell (the most obnoxious judge) didn’t criticize the good people and let the bad ones slide — there is no problem with the study. Informed participants could make the decision that it was worth it for their careers to receive feedback — even harsh feedback — on their singing. In many ways, what happens on “Idol” is not much different from what happens to any new singers trying to break into the field — it just happens more quickly and more publicly.

The problem with “Idol,” though, is: What exactly would the research question be?

Something like “Who’s Your Daddy” might also make the cut, because the research potential is good; however, the lying, deception, and sleaziness would probably have to be eliminated. On this show, a woman who was adopted as a young girl must choose her real father from a dozen older men, all of whom claim to be her biological dad (one actually is). If she gets it right she gets $100,000. If she guesses wrong, the imposter who has fooled her gets the money.

The idea of the research — can people identify relatives — is interesting and possibly valuable. The argument against such research is that it could be traumatic for the participant. That is true, but the participant is over 18 and therefore (we assume) legally eligible to find out who her father is through other channels. The IRB would want to make sure the process is done in the least traumatic way possible and that psychological services are available, should they be necessary. The elements of lying would have to be eliminated. In addition, the IRB might want to cut the prize money from $100,000 to something smaller. Such a large amount might entice someone to do something against his or her best psychological interest.

This show, which was quickly cancelled, had an element of sleaze (so I’m told) in that it was always older men trying to dupe younger women. One could imagine, however, a non-deceptive study in which siblings separated at an early age tried to identify each other. Eliminating the lying, deception, sleaze, and big prize might get the show past the IRB; however, it probably wouldn’t get the show past the network executives (who would worry that the eviscerated show would not have enough “juice” for the reality audience).

Too Much Psychological Risk
At the other extreme, there are two programs that could probably never make it through an IRB. The first is “Trading Spouses: Meet Your New Mommy,” in which wives swap homes for a short period of time and experience life in the new home with the other wife’s partner, children, and pets.

The subtle problem with “Trading Spouses” is that there is no way to get true consent for or from any minors involved. Typically, consent has to be given by the parent — who is assumed to have the best interest of the child at heart. Also, typically, researchers get minors’ “assent” — their agreement (behavioral or written, depending on age) to be in the study. An IRB would worry about real psychological risks to the children and that the children could not truly understand the potential dangers. With the lure of TV fame for the parents perhaps blinding their acknowledgment of potential risks to their children, there is no way that the parent’s agreement on behalf of the minor would be seen as “objective.”

On “The Swan,” women who believe themselves unattractive are offered complete, often full-body makeovers after a thorough “analysis” of their appearance by the show’s plastic surgeons, dentists, etc. After the makeover, they enter a beauty contest with other made-over participants. An IRB would find here that the risks are far too great in proportion to the benefits for these activities to be allowed as research. There are not only physical risks in all of the medical procedures, but there are also great unknown psychological risks — not only for the surgery but also for the majority of participants who lose the after-makeover beauty contest. Those risks would not be perceived as outweighing the potential benefits (to either the individual or society).

Too Much Deception?
Sometimes deception is so great that there is no way to imagine that people would have agreed to be in the study had they known at the outset what the study was really about or would involve. For example, in “Joe Millionaire,” dozens of women compete for the hand of a supposed millionaire. When it turns out at the end that he’s a minimum wage worker, they must decide whether to stay with him. This show exhibits the classic illegal action of “bait and switch” — entice someone to do something in order to receive a desirable good, then switch to a less desirable good. The very first rule of ethical research is: If it ain’t legal then it ain’t ethical.

Too Much Physical Risk?
It is hard to see how an IRB would approve of shows with real physical risks, such as “Fear Factor,” in which contestants compete for a cash prize by doing things their competitors might not do, such as eating ground-up rats, jumping off buildings, or laying in a coffin filled with worms. Is there any research question aside from how much physical/psychological pain will people endure for fame and/or money? As mentioned above, IRBs scrutinize excessive payments for research participation watching for potential coercion.

On “Survivor,” a dozen people are left on an island (or other exotic place). They are placed into teams and must compete against each other for food and other provisions. At the end of each show, one person (from the losing team) is voted off the island by his teammates, so backstabbing is prevalent. This scenario is a more interesting case than “Fear Factor,” because there are some real possible research questions, and because the physical dangers are not as immediate. With an appropriate consent form detailing the potential physical and psychological risks, strong assurances that one could quit the study without repercussion, and a re-worked payment scale, some version of “Survivor” might actually pass.

Editor’s Note: This article was written in the spirit of fun and the analyses are not as thorough as they would be at a complete IRB meeting. IRBs may vary. Do not attempt this research at home without the express written consent of your very own IRB.

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