IRB practice with a study on relationships: Discussion

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To begin this online or face-to-face discussion, ask your students to read this brief introduction to Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) on the American Psychological Association website (APA, 2023). Next, ask students to read the section on the “criteria for IRB approval of research” in the U.S Code of Federal Regulations. (If you are outside the United States, refer to the regulations in your country.)

Students are to imagine that they are the community representative serving on their institution’s IRB. Give students this information:

A research proposal from a group of researchers at your institution is now up for review. Imagine that the IRB has received the following proposal. (The text comes from the introduction section of a recently published study. The bracketed text has been added to change the verb tense.)

Study 1 [will test] whether couples’ financial arrangements can mitigate the corrosive effect of time on relationship quality. Using a longitudinal field experiment, we [will] randomly [assign] couples to merge their money in a joint bank account, to keep their money in separate bank accounts, or to a condition where they [will receive] no instructions about how to structure their finances. We [will recruit] only engaged or newlywed couples for this experiment, since those couples’ relationship dynamics are not yet set in stone and are presumably responsive to intervention (Huston et al. 2001; Joel and Eastwick 2018). We [will follow] these couples for 2 years, conducting six waves of data collection across the connubial crucible [the newlywed years]. We [will measure] changes in relationship quality and financial harmony (i.e., the extent to which partners are satisfied with how they handle and discuss money). We [expect to] find that couples who transition to a joint bank account [will be] buffered against the normative decline in relationship quality observed within longitudinal research on marriage, an effect due in part to positive changes in financial harmony (Olson et al., 2023, p. 3).

One challenge for IRBs is how to weigh potential risks to participants against potential benefits to participants and the value of the knowledge gained from the research. What risks to participants can you envision? What benefits to participants? What is the value of the knowledge that may be gained from this study? Would you say that the potential risks are worth the potential reward? Explain.

What questions do you have for the researchers about the ethics of this study? (Refer to the section on the “criteria for IRB approval of research” in the U.S Code of Federal Regulations to frame your response.) What answers to your questions would you need to see in order to give your okay for this study? Explain.

If there are risks to participants, IRBs may allow a study to be conducted if the participants in the study are made aware of the risks. What information would you need to see in the informed consent form in order to allow this study to move forward? Explain.

This study did indeed receive IRB approval and was conducted—as you undoubtedly guessed since it was published. Students may wonder about the results. The researchers found that their no-intervention control group and separate-money condition both experienced a similar decline in relationship quality over the 2-year period. The researchers noted, however, that 72% of the couples in the control group maintained separate accounts throughout the entire time period. Of those in the control group who did opt to merge their money did so in the second year. In other words, the no-intervention group, in practice, looked very similar to the separate-account group. In contrast, the participants in the joint-money condition experienced a boost in their relationship quality (Olson et al., 2023).

If time allows, give students the opportunity to generate their own research questions regarding the connection between finances and relationship quality.



APA. (2023, August). Frequently asked questions about institutional review boards.

Olson, J. G., Rick, S. I., Small, D. A., & Finkel, E. J. (2023). Common cents: Bank account structure and couples’ relationship dynamics. Journal of Consumer Research, ucad020.


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About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.