Data Use, Technology, and Educational Leadership

Batman, Stephen King, and Research Ethics

The new Batman movie and Stephen King’s Under the Dome: Two works of fiction that are based on an unfortunate dimension to human behavior. I saw the movie last night and finished the book a couple days ago. The former explores what happens when the city of Gotham gets held hostage. The latter explores what happens when a small New England gets locked under a mysterious dome. Despite the heroes and high points, the picture is surprisingly bleak.

It is also surprisingly accurate to some classic experiments in psychology. Without much intervention, normally law-abiding folks can get very mean and very ugly, very quickly.

“What happens when you put good people in an evil place?” was the question motivating Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment. I’m skipping over a lot of neat details regarding the study’s set up, but the participants were instructed to either behave as prisoners or guards. Things got crazy from there. Within just a few days the study had to be stopped. The guards had become sadistic, the prisoners were in various states of rebellion and break down. This study, along with several others, are classic examples included in IRB training.

But they don’t often come to life in the usual training. Here’s a BBC documentary that provides a short glimpse into the voices and expressions of good people who lose track of right and wrong. I think it hammers home that it losing track of right and wrong is easier to do than we think, and that’s why there’s IRB. Our endurance of tedium diligence in doing IRB paperwork and following protocols isn’t about bureaucracy. It’s about honoring and protecting participants; it’s about ensuring that we continue to be the good people we think we are.


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This entry was posted on August 8, 2012 by and tagged .