Over the last few decades, researchers have been careful to minimize additional trauma to individuals recounting psychologically sensitive topics.
Now, a new study suggests sex and trauma research is less upsetting to individuals than what had been previously assumed. The finding challenges the contention of Institutional Review Boards (IRB), an entity that must give a stamp of approval before research on human subjects is allowed.
IRBs have taken the position that asking people about sex and trauma is riskier and more distressing than asking people to complete standard intelligence tests or personality questionnaires.
As a result, research that could help in understanding the psychological consequences of rape, child sexual abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, post-traumatic stress and sexual dysfunctions is often much more difficult to get IRB approval for, despite the potential for this research to inform mental health treatment and support overall well-being.
In the new study, researchers Elizabeth Yeater, Geoffrey Miller, Jenny Rinehart, and Erica Nason determined that typical research participants – college undergraduates – are less upset than expected by questionnaires about sex, trauma, and other sensitive topics.
Miller said that “IRBs have been well-intentioned, but our research suggests they have often been overprotective. I hope our study helps make it easier to do the sex and trauma research that could reduce the real harm done by rape, child abuse, and other sexual problems.”
Investigators randomly assigned 504 college students to spend two hours either doing standard intelligence tests, or completing trauma/sex questionnaires about a wide variety of sensitive topics.
Questions included: Whether the research participant had ever been raped or raped someone else, whether they’d suffered childhood sexual abuse or physical beatings, whether they recently felt suicidal, how many sexual hook-ups they’d had, how often they have sexual fantasies about cheating on their partner, whether they would take part in an orgy, how often they have traumatic flashbacks, when their last menstrual period was, whether they use sexual lubricant while masturbating, whether they have breast implants or body piercings, and whether they’ve used a day-after contraceptive pill recently.
Participants rated their positive and negative feelings before and after the study, and rated how distressing they found the study compared to a range of 15 ordinary life events that are somewhat upsetting, such as having blood drawn or forgetting Mother’s Day.
The participants who completed the trauma/sex survey reported slightly higher negative emotion on average than the intelligence-test participants, but the difference was very small, and the average level of negative emotion in both conditions was very low.
On the other hand, the participants who completed the trauma/sex survey reported more positive emotion, more personal insight, less boredom, and less mental exhaustion.
Most surprisingly, participants in both conditions reported that the two-hour study was significantly less distressing than all 15 ordinary life events – even getting a paper cut, or waiting in line for 20 minutes at a bank.
Investigators believe the findings are significant and reflect the mores and mindset of a new generation of American college students who grew up with “South Park” and Facebook. Researchers contend the new generation student is psychologically resilient, and much less upset by trauma/sex research, than IRBs usually assume.
Lead researcher Yeater said: “These findings highlight to me the need for us to continually test our assumptions and theories about human behavior. Without such empirical evaluation, we prevent ourselves from making scientific progress in areas that are likely to have an impact on understanding, treating, and preventing human suffering.”
Many university IRB committees have welcomed the research and are using it to guide decisions about the risk levels of new research proposals.
The study is forthcoming in Psychological Science.