Suppose you wanted to get an insider’s view of extramarital affairs. How would you go about doing it, and what ethical problems might you encounter?
A major part of Pamela Haag’s book, Marriage Confidential, and one that caused much discussion, is just such research. The book’s subtitle gives a sense of its overall content: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses & Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules. (I should mention that this essay--like my last one, What If Barack Obama’s Mother Had Had A Different Life?--was written when the relevant book came out. As in the case of my previous piece, I recently decided to share it with my Psychology Today readers.)
Haag is an historian concerned with women’s issues, who has familiarized herself with much of the relevant psychology and social science literature. She writes in an engaging style, with an apparent candor ranging from insouciant to sassy, and intersperses tidbits from her own marriage with those from others. Her main concern is with marriages with the blahs—couples who care about each other but are well past the romantic high, sexually disappointed, and are asking themselves the Peggy Lee question, “Is that all there is?”
(I should mention in passing that the book could use more of a developmental psychology perspective. Haag seems to be concerned mainly with the stresses on middle-aged couples with children—a group often spoken of with regard to a “mid-life crisis.” In a sense, many of the relationship phenomena she discusses are the other side of the coin of this developmental period.)
As part of her research, Haag uses an online pseudonym to join a website for married people looking to have affairs. She writes that, “On my first search, nearly 250 affair-seeking husbands materialize instantly…” (p. 199). She corresponds with some of them, to hear their stories (i.e., to gather data) but doesn’t reveal that she is actually a researcher and has lied about her interest in an extramarital affair.
Haag also uses a man’s pseudonym, and receives no replies—suggesting that the website, which presents itself as a discreet matching service for married people, actually functions to extract money from gullible, horny men.
Haag is not a professor at a university. Universities--and other institutions that receive federal funds--have Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) that must grant prior approval for all employee research with human subjects. The need for IRBs stems primarily from biomedical research, where the lack of adequate informed consent can lead participants to suffer unanticipated grievous consequences, including death—for example, from an experimental drug. However, the bureaucratic imperative has led IRBs to extend their reach to all research in the social and behavioral sciences, including the most innocuous. For example, some psychologists interested in suicide prevention have run into IRB trouble because asking people if they have thought of killing themselves might upset them (= cause harm). As a result, much psychological research has become trivial and irrelevant, because dealing with important and relevant issues might upset people (= cause harm).
Haag’s research would never have passed muster with an IRB because it involved deception and because there were no signed informed consent forms. Hence, if she had been a professor, the research would never have been done, and readers would have been deprived of her contribution. This seems to me Orwellian—making the function of a university the prevention of the creation of new knowledge.
Haag describes her research as ethnographic, but I don’t think the label fits that well. Too much of it was done at arm’s length—anonymously and over the Internet—rather than by immersing herself in the world of marital infidelity. She was more of an observer than a participant-observer. I’m not suggesting that she needed to have an affair. For example, urban anthropologists studying injecting drug users and the spread of AIDS have spent lots of time with street people, getting to know their world up close, without participating in their illegal activities.
So here we have research that deserved to be done, and that was in fact done, and published, but would not have been approved by an IRB. Where can we find such activities--routinely taking place as if IRBs didn’t exist?
Just check out the local TV news, where “if it bleeds, it leads.” Reporters routinely ask grieving mothers on camera, “How does it feel, seeing your daughter burned to death in your house/your son murdered before your eyes?” Journalists, with no special qualifications, can ask anyone anything simply because they hope to put their story in a newspaper or magazine, or on TV. In contrast, highly qualified social scientists are prevented from asking volunteer participants all kinds of things, even though the researchers hope to publish the results in an academic journal or in a book. I would call researchers’ desire for greater academic freedom journalism envy.
Haag is an academic who had the freedom to do her research because she was not at a university and did not need IRB approval. Does this mean that she had no obligation to the men she lied to? I think not. Some readers might draw the inference from Marriage Confidential that, since most if not all of the men she corresponded with were lying to their wives, that excuses her for lying to them.
I don’t believe she would make that argument. She is responsible for her own conduct, and it is the search for knowledge—her research project—that made the lies necessary. Hence, once she had her data, she needed to make amends to the men—in research terms, to debrief them.
I think that she should have sent a form e-mail—supplemented where relevant by individualized messages—explaining her research, apologizing for deceiving the men she corresponded with and for imposing on their time, and restating a pledge to respect their anonymity. In doing so, she might have chosen to keep her false identity, but would have shown a good faith effort to compensate for the deception necessitated by her study.
In short, while I disapprove of IRBs’ intrusions on academic freedom, and the bureaucratic procedures that have stunted social science research, I am not advocating a policy of “anything goes.” On the contrary, as I see it, IRBs have created a situation where the slavish following of rules has come to replace broad ethical principles, a discussion of those principles by graduate students and researchers, and moral reasoning concerning their implementation in specific research projects.
A colleague who is an IRB expert disagrees with me. Her point of view is that virtually all social science research is permissible as long as subjects’ participation is voluntary, a way is found for them to give their informed consent and have the right to withdraw their data subsequent to providing it if they so choose, and confidentiality is maintained. She agrees that some IRBs overstep their bounds, but for her the solution is to increase oversight by the National Institutes of Health/Office for Human Research Protections [NIH/OHRP] to prevent abuses. My view is that the bureaucratic imperative is such that inappropriate IRB intrusiveness is inevitable, has been getting worse over time and will continue to do so, and that NIH/OHRP will not provide the kind of oversight necessary to make IRBs into facilitators of rather than roadblocks to social science research.
The following give and take is my creation, in dialogue form, of some of the main points that my IRB colleague and I made in our discussions:
JF: Universities don’t want bad publicity, so they will stack IRBs with members who will come up with bureaucratic excuses to prevent research that might prove embarrassing.
IRB: IRB members should be independent of the university administration.
JF: They should be, but often they aren’t. And the problem is that there is no appeal from IRB decisions. Who polices the police?
IRB: In general, you’re right, but faculty members can complain to the NIH/OHRP.
JF: Faculty members are intimidated. Bringing in the NIH/OHRP could endanger university funding, and could provoke retaliation by the administration. Besides, what about the argument that social science researchers act as journalists and should have the same rights?
IRB: As your “if it bleeds, it leads” example shows, journalists do harm. Social science researchers should be held to a higher standard than journalists.
JF: That leaves out the whole point of journalism—the public’s right to know. A democracy is based on the idea that an informed public is both a good in itself and a prerequisite for voters to choose wise leaders and petition for redress of grievances. We put up with journalistic excesses and misdeeds because journalistic freedom of expression is necessary to bring to light the excesses and misdeeds of others. In addition, journalists’ codes of ethics and editorial supervision mitigate bad behavior. In general, social science research provides higher quality information than journalism and therefore should be protected as well.
IRB: But some social science research really does harm. IRBs are there to prevent that.
JF: That’s why we have codes of ethics for the social sciences. Instead of one-size-fits-all IRB rules, we need training in ethical reasoning within each discipline.
And so the discussion went—an enlightening experience though neither of us convinced the other.
The American Psychological Association’s current code of ethics is grotesquely long and complex. It has grown over the years in part to adapt to legal decisions and IRB rules. Thus, it would have had Pamela Haag not only debrief her subjects, but give them the right to withdraw their data.
However, Pamela Haag is not a psychologist; she is an historian, and is not bound by APA’s ethical code. As far as I could tell at the time of the publication of Marriage Confidential, from looking over the American Historical Association’s Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, and the Evaluation Guidelines of the Oral History Association (though her research wasn’t really oral history), she broke no rules. This is not so much because historians would have viewed her research as ethical as because they didn’t do her kind of research, and their guidelines didn’t cover it. For example, AHA’s concern with deception had to do with plagiarism.
My guess is that the main reason that Pamela Haag did not debrief the men she led on is that the idea didn’t occur to her. So, in addition to the suggestion that she should have debriefed them, I would add another one. I think that she should have consulted with people who do similar research—psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists. They could have called attention to both methodological and ethical issues in her research and clarified her thinking before she went ahead.
Cover of Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses, and Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules by Pamela Haag
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