Before Facebook, there was Tuskegee and Milgram

It turns out the Facebook mood experiment was just the tip of an unsettling-sounding  iceberg. The Wall Street Journal reports that the company’s research division has been running all kinds of studies on us— hundreds of themwith very little oversight. Here's a quick recap of why universities don't do things that way:

For decades the U.S. government ran a study on African-American sharecroppers, to see what happened when you didn’t treat syphillis.  

"You could argue: 'Yes, but how interesting! We can see what the effects of untreated syphillis are," says Columbia University bio-ethicist Robert Klitzman

When the story came out in the early 1970s, people didn’t see things that way.  "As a society, we've decided that we can't turn people into human guinea pigs," says Klitzman.

By then, there were also second thoughts about a couple of social psychology’s greatest hits. Like the one where Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram got people to flip a switch they thought was going to kill someone.

In 1974, Congress passed the National Research Act, which led to the development of regulations for any research done by an institution receiving federal money.

The regulations boiled down to three things:  First, minimize risks to study participants.  Second, disclose those risks, so people know what they're getting into. And third, get an internal group at your institution has to sign off. That group is an Institutional Review Board, or IRB.

However, the existence of IRBs doesn't guarantee that social science experiments get the most careful review, says Jesse Goldner, a St. Louis University law professor and co-author of a book on human-subjects research rules and ethics.

"IRBs are kind of overwhelmed," he says. "There’s a little bit of a tendnecy to say, 'Gosh, you know, there’s so much of this biomedical research where there’s, quote, real risks of people dying, or becoming disabled.' You know, 'How much attention should we be giving to this little stuff?'"  

The "little stuff" being the kinds of emotional risks that got so much attention with Facebook's mood study.

About the author

Dan is a sustainability reporter for Marketplace.

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