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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 authors did not consider whether the financial incentive or the shorter testing time was the cause of people choosing the riskier task. Even in the control (non-God group), a high percent also chose the riskier task.

These results also lend concern for real-world studies: Can potential participants be so easily manipulated into consenting to be part of a research study? Are religious people more likely to consent to risky research? After all, Richard McCormick stated that there was a moral obligation to be part of research trials, at least for children and by extraction, for everyone.

A master’s dissertation by Amanda McAllister at Eastern Michigan University in 2009 found that there was no correlation between religious affiliation and participation in clinical research. Other research shows that higher religiosity* is associated with mistrust of medicine and clinical trials. Articles on why people do engage in research participation do not cite religion as a factor. It is possible that such a question was simply not asked. There also seems to be much written about whether religion prevents people from participating in religious trials, but not whether belief in God makes one more likely to be a research participant.

This study offers three take away lessons for me. First, if the subjects made their choices based on time and compensation (not God-words), then subjects may not be considering risk and benefit in weighing participation. This suggests a need to find a way to help potential participants to understand the risks of their enrolling in t a study. Second, simulation scenarios about research participation may not be close enough to a real world choice to allow a measure of what choices people make and how they make them. In other words, the research method may be flawed.

Third, if religiosity is a factor in willingness to participate in risky research, then perhaps such individuals needs to be considered a special population alongside women, ethnic and minority populations, economically disadvantaged, those with impaired decision-making, children, and captive populations (prisoners and students). When working with such vulnerable populations, it is necessary to build in extra protections because there may be additional or unknown risks, because the population has been ignored or injured as a group in the past, or because they have limitations on their freedom to rationally choose whether to participate.

Further research is needed to know if religiosity and exposure to God-words does influence projected risk-taking behavior in clinical research trials. If there is a hint that it does, then considering high religiosity as a vulnerable population is the logical next step.


° The term “nonmoral” is not defined in the paper.
*Religiosity is the sum of a person’s religious activity, belief, and dedication. This notion is being used here to include the influence of the God-words exercise in this study.

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