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Unhappiness and TV watching: Correlations, experiments, and ethics

sue_frantz
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After covering correlations and experiments, share the February 17, 2021 edition of the PC and Pixel comic strip with your students. In the first panel, one of the characters reads a research finding: “It’s reported here that unhappy people watch more TV than happy folks.” Ask your students if they think this is correlational research or experimental research, and ask them to explain why.

In the next two panels of the comic strip, the characters wonder if it’s that unhappiness leads to more TV watching or if more TV watching leads to unhappiness. Point out that since this is correlational research, we don’t know which is true. Either or both could be true. We just don’t know.

Ask your students to generate some possible third variables that could influence both happiness and TV watching separately. For example, feelings of loneliness could lead to both feelings of unhappiness and greater TV watching (as a source of company, say).

Explain that researchers may take correlational research, and use it to generate hypotheses that could be tested by conducting an experiment.

If people are made to feel unhappier, they will watch more TV.

If people are made to watch more TV, they will be unhappier.

If people are made to feel lonely, they will be both unhappier and watch more TV.

Working in small groups, ask your students to design experiments that would test each of these hypotheses. “Be sure to identify the independent variable and its levels and the dependent variable. Be sure to describe how they would operationalize the variables.”

Bring the class back together, and ask one group to share their design for testing the first hypotheses. Invite other groups to share how they operationalized the independent variable and dependent variable. Take a minute to walk students through what the different results from each test of the hypothesis would tell us. Point out that there is no right or wrong way to operationalize a variable. In fact, if the hypothesis is supported across experiments that operationalized the variables different, the more confident we are in the findings.

Next, ask your students if they have any concerns about intentionally trying to make people feel unhappier, either as the independent variable or as the dependent variable. Invite students to share their concerns.

If you haven’t already, introduce students to the APA’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct.

The first of the five general principles is beneficence and nonmaleficence. This principle reads, in part:

Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm. In their professional actions, psychologists seek to safeguard the welfare and rights of those with whom they interact professionally and other affected persons, and the welfare of animal subjects of research.

The third of the principles—integrity—is also relevant here. This principle reads in its entirety:

Psychologists seek to promote accuracy, honesty, and truthfulness in the science, teaching, and practice of psychology. In these activities psychologists do not steal, cheat or engage in fraud, subterfuge, or intentional misrepresentation of fact. Psychologists strive to keep their promises and to avoid unwise or unclear commitments. In situations in which deception may be ethically justifiable to maximize benefits and minimize harm, psychologists have a serious obligation to consider the need for, the possible consequences of, and their responsibility to correct any resulting mistrust or other harmful effects that arise from the use of such techniques.

Given these ethical principles, are students more comfortable with some of the experimental designs they created than others? For example, are experiments that bring about temporary and mild unhappiness better than designs that are, say, more intense? Does the knowledge that these experiments would bring—and the good it would mean for humanity—outweigh the harm they may cause in the short-term? Be sure to describe the purpose of a debriefing.

Conclude this discussion by emphasizing that these are the ethics questions every researcher and every member of an Institutional Review Board struggle with. No one takes these questions lightly.

If you’d like to give your students some library database practice, ask your students to find three to five peer-reviewed research articles on the connection between happiness and TV watching. For each article, students should identify if the research reported was correlational or experimental (and how they know) and provide a paragraph summarizing the results.

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology in community colleges since 1992, and has been at Highline College in the Seattle area since 2001. 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.