A Questionable Experiment

By Toni Alimi ‘13

Over Christmas Break, a group of students initiated a study through the Psychology department and Princeton’s Office of Sustainability to observe how external pressures affect Princeton students’ attitudes and actions towards energy-saving initiatives. However, due to carelessness in the implementation of the study, lack of clarity concerning the obligations of students, and violations of students’ privacy, this Sustainability study marked a grand failure in achieving its goals and reveals problematic attitudes that the University takes towards its students.

The purpose of this experiment was to measure how different forms of social pressure would affect student’s attitudes towards environmental initiatives. Three sets of posters were put outside of students’ dorm rooms throughout campus. The first posters said that students who did not unplug their appliances over break would have their names posted in their respective colleges, while the second said that such name-posting would happen to students who did unplug their appliances.  By contrast, the third set of posters mentioned nothing at all about students’ names being posted, but merely encouraged students to unplug.  Afterwards, to see which type of social pressure was most effective, the study would compare the students who ‘unplugged’ in each of the first two poster groups, using the students with the third poster set as a control group.

The Sustainability study was initiated by a group of students working on a research project under Assistant Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs Elizabeth Levy Paluck. Presumably to protect the privacy of the students who executed the study, the names of the students involved were not released to the Tory. However, email correspondence with Professor Paluck did shed some light on the goals of the study. According to Professor Paluck, the origins of the initiative were “student-initiated campaigns at Princeton to inspire these behaviors in the student population using postering and pledges before winter break [and] behavior-change messaging innovations in the psychological research literature.”

While it seems that much could be learned from studying how external pressure changes people’s attitudes towards greening initiatives, the implementation of were grossly misguided. Firstly, the hypocrisy of the plan was self-evident (the posters were printed on high quality, expensive, environmentally unconscious paper). More importantly, however, many students were aware that a study was in fact going on because of the contradicting messages displayed on posters that were in close proximity to each other. Because students could easily ascertain that the audit was in fact an experiment, the strength of ‘social pressure’ to unplug will have been skewed. Ultimately, the effectiveness of the study was diminished because of this lack of attention to detail.

However, the implementation of the study is not nearly as troubling as the campus ethos that allowed the Office of Sustainability and the University as a whole to permit such an initiative. Professor Paluck claimed that all students were “sent notices letting them know they could opt out of the room inspections, and many did so, and when they did, they also did not receive the poster on their door.” Though Professor Paluck insisted that “they took considerations of privacy very seriously, as did the human subjects research board, the housing department, and the sustainability office,” some students claim to have misunderstood the details of the opt-out option.

However, assuming that Professor Paluck and the University did in fact make the opt-out option clearly available to all students, there is still something altogether off concerning the fact that students seemed to have been ‘opted in’ to the study by default. I confronted Professor Paluck with this question, but, as of yet, she has not responded to my inquiries.  This default-in orientation is flagrantly inconsistent with the rest of the University. In any sort of psychology study, students choose whether or not they want to participate – they are not entered in without regard to their initial sentiments and then asked to remove themselves. Research ethics seems to indicate a protection of the privacy of research subjects. Entering a student’s room and publishing the names of a particular group of students concerning their living habits are suspensions of privacy. As such, such an experiment should only be carried out with the consent of the student. In this case, an opt-in system would make more sense, since students are choosing to potentially suspend their privacy. In the opt-out system, privacy is suspended by default.

This understanding then poses two problems. First, asking students to opt in would skew data results by reducing the sample size vastly, and self-selecting the sampled population (i.e, people who are more actively environmentally conscious might be more willing to participate in the study). For the experimenter this is not ideal, however; ignoring basic tenets of research ethics in pursuit of more accurate results is an unpalatable position for the researcher to maintain.

The second problem is that in certain scenarios, University institutions are allowed to enter students’ room without their consent, especially if the student is not in his or dorm at the time. However, this problem falls under even the slightest examination. Upon matriculating at Princeton, there is an agreement (implicit or explicit) that institutions like the Housing Office and Public Safety might need to check one’s room from time to time. In fact, in certain scenarios it could be crucial to the safety of students.

This suspension of privacy is voluntary because matriculating at Princeton is voluntary. This sustainability study does not fall under this type of room check because upon entering Princeton there is no agreement that Student A is required to allow Student B to enter his or her own room without Student A’s permission. However, under the guidance of Professor Paluck and, perhaps more surprisingly, with the consent of the Housing Office and the Office of Sustainability, exactly this was done.

This disappointing orientation reveals attitudes that extend beyond Princeton University’s campus. While there are noble aspects to the goals of environmentalism, its proponents seem to often time resort to dubious tactics to advance their ideologies. If the University is to proceed with initiatives that help ‘green’ Princeton’s campus, and especially if environmentalists are to continue studying the attitudes of Princeton’s students towards environmentalism, these must be carried out with the greatest possible care and discretion for the sensibilities and rights of the students that comprise this campus. Some simple corrections would be in order. First, and most simply, the experimenters should have taken care to protect the integrity of their results by putting up posters more diligently – perhaps having one set of posters up campus and another set down campus. Secondly, students should have not been defaulted into the study. Rather, it should have been voluntarily entered (rather than voluntarily exited). Finally, if indeed the study had to be opt-out rather than opt-in; the opt-out option should have been made clearer to students. A combination of diligence and a greater respect for the privacy of students may have led to a more effective and less contentious campaign.

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