Ethics in the study of ‘sexual virtue’

29 Apr

In my final blog, I decided to compile my knowledge of ethics to discuss a study I believe it would be interesting to conduct. Inspired by a scene from a film I watched yesterday (The Cabin In The Woods) I would like to discover the sex differences in what I will call ‘sexual virtue’. The notion of ‘virtue’ refers to being a good person and doing the right thing even in absence of consequence, and so ‘sexual virtue’ would be to deny oneself a rewarding sexual experience from the belief that it is unjust. This study would, hopefully, add to the school of knowledge about sexual behaviour.


My study would recreate a scene where one individual (the participant) is standing on the ‘viewing side’ of a double sided mirror, in the belief that they are waiting for an experimenter to begin a separate study. At this point, an attractive member of the opposite sex (a stooge) will enter the room on the other side of this mirror, seemingly oblivious that the mirror they see is deceptive, and begin to undress. What will be recorded is the participant’s reaction: will they inform the stooge that they can see them, watch them undress or turn away from the window? My assumptions of the results would be that there will only be sex differences in virtue during each sex’s sexual prime. That is, males between 18-21, and females in their late thirties, will be more willing to watch the stooge undress.


The ethical issues of this study would create a gargantuan list: deceiving the participant, causing psychological harm (stress at what to do, potential embarrassment/shame during debrief), right to withdraw would be completely ignored, how would the recording methods (probably CCTV) be contained/destroyed, and even ensuring that the individual does not personally know the stooge (which could cause embarrassment for both parties). Some of these issues could be avoided. It could be argued that briefing the participant vaguely that they are taking part in a sexual behaviour study (simply not telling them when it begun) could reduce the level of deception. Researchers could watch and take notes from the live CCTV footage, rather than recording it, and so no footage could be lost or need to be stored. It could be ensured that the stooge walks through a ‘waiting’ area in view of the participant in order for them to confirm that they do not know each other. However, the greatest issues to Psychological study, protecting participants from harm and right to withdraw, would still be unavoidable. It is because of this that my study will never be conducted.


Ethics are of utmost importance within a science, and although they may prevent interesting studies and informative findings being discovered, these should never be at the cost of an individual’s free will, confidentiality, or any other rights which we are to protect. I hope you have enjoyed my example of how ethics, as important as they are, can restrict our gaining of knowledge.

‘Children can be so cruel…’ the hypocrites in the workplace

25 Mar

Childhood bullying is widely addressed and understood to be an issue, with consequences including anxiety, depression, and even suicide as a result of repeated victimisation (Rigby, 2001). However, relatively little emphasis is given to the psychological consequences associated with adult bullying. Far from being simply a ‘child’s issue’, many adults experience harassment in the workplace, at all levels of seniority, resulting in ill health and major life stress:


“In a workplace of global repute I considered myself to be in a secure and professional career. I was, however, subjected to a prolonged episode of bullying by a divisional manager that reduced me to a shadow of my former self; crushing my confidence, and driving a huge wedge between me and my hopes for the future. I can only describe this experience as the worst of my life so far.” Stephen Berry, Founder of ShatteredLENS Photography


Quine (1999) attempted to establish the prevalence of workplace bullying within a borough of the NHS in south east England with a series of questionnaires. These included a new 20 item bullying inventory, along with Job stress and anxiety and depression scales. Researchers received 1,100 responses, which provided assertions that 38% of employees have experienced bulling, and that 42% had witnessed it. Such results are shockingly high when considering that adult bullying is given relatively little attention. Other findings included that those who had been bullied were more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and job induced stress.


There are issues with the generalisability of these findings. Although the sample size is significantly large, the niche sample of NHS employees from south west England poses problems with population validity (e.g. some variables, such as job stress, could be heightened for NHS employees who fear the security of their jobs in the unstable public sector). Furthermore, it is often argued that the use of self-report methods is unreliable as it is too subjective. However, it should also be noted that individuals working within the NHS (particularly doctors and nurses) would understand the importance of accurate self-report data, as they would regularly have to use this in diagnosis, and so their responses could be more reliable.


With thousands of different job titles, work environments and scenarios, it is possible that we will never have a true representation of workplace bullying statistics. Gathering information about bullying within schools nationwide would be easier, with comparably fewer variables to consider (although differences within Faith and Grammar schools etc. should be noted). A potential way to measure these aspects of all jobs would be to include it in the census, as it could be argued that it is an important aspect of national wellbeing which should be monitored and controlled if possible (although including it in a compulsory document would raise issues with right to withdraw).


Regardless of the issues of accurate data about workplace bullying, the psychological consequences cannot be ignored. It is undeniable that there should be increased support and general awareness concerning such traumatic experiences.





Rigby, K. (2001). Health consequences of bullying and its prevention in schools. In J. Juvonen & S. Graham (Eds.), Peer Harrassment in School, the Plight of the Vulnerable and Victimized. (pp. 310-318). New York:The Guilford Press

Quine, L. (1999). Workplace bullying in NHS community trust: staff questionnaire survey. BMJ.  doi: 10.1136/bmj.318.7178.228


Under Your Skin(s)…

7 Mar

The Social Learning Theory suggests that humans learn behaviour vicariously, we observe the behaviour of others, and act depending on the consequences for them. Any behaviour, positive or negative, can be learned this way. But what if bad behaviour is reinforced by positive consequences? It is widely considered that young people watching violent programmes and playing violent video games could influence their behaviour. In the popular video game Grand Theft Auto, gamers are encouraged to shoot and kill innocent pedestrians within a certain time limit. The positive feedback from the game, and casual atmosphere when playing amongst friends, would reinforce behaviour in the virtual world, and possibly stretch to aggression in real life. If such influences exist, could it be suggested that other deviant behaviours can be learnt?

Many popular television programmes portray such behaviours, such as Skins. This popular programme amongst young individuals follows the lives of adolescents who regularly indulge in risky behaviours, such as unprotected sex and promiscuity, drug taking and excessive drinking. Although the negative consequences are often shown in the programme for dramatic purposes, such behaviours are suggested to be fun and exciting, and are actively maintained.

When questioning several undergraduate students at Bangor University about how such scenes might affect them, several admitted that they can be influential:

‘Can’t say that I have done anything because of it, but I can see why people would!’

‘The fact that in programs like Skins and Misfits that there always smoking and drinking, clubbing and doing weed, it’s bound to cause influences on behaviour which people would not usually partake in.’

‘Programmes like Skins and Fresh Meat always hinder my plans to quit smoking!’

Could such programmes, fictional though they are, alter an individual’s opinion of the subjective norm for their age group? The consequences of viewing such programmes at such an impressionable age could be that the individual engages, or attempts to engage, in the deviant behaviours they consider to be normal. An example of this could be underage sexual activity. Collins et al., (2004) found that in their sample of 1,792 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 19 surveyed, respondents were more likely to have initiated sexual intercourse in the 1 year follow-up if they had viewed more television with a sexual content than those who hadn’t. The same effect has also been observed with alcohol consumption. Robinson, Chen and Killen (1998) observed the effects of viewing alcohol use in prime time television on a sample of 1533 school students (average age 14). Findings at an 18-month follow-up showed that the onset of drinking significantly associated with hours of television watched.

It would be interesting to observe the effects of such programmes, before and after viewing, on the opinions of individuals towards these behaviours and whether they it would influence their own judgements of risk taking. Such data could only be gathered with self-report methods, which would be riddled with issues of social desirability bias and demand characteristics. However, such studies could be important when considering what should and should not be shown on television, and when.


Robinson. T. N., Chen. H. L., Killen. J. D. (1998). Television and Music Exposure and Risk of Adolescent Alcohol Use. Pediatrics. 102(5)


Collins. R. L., Elliot. M. N., Berry. S. H., Kanouse. D. E., Kunkel. D., Hunter. S. B., Miu. A. (2004). Watching Sex on Television Predicts Adolescent Initiation of Sexual Behaviour. Pediatrics. 144 (3) 280-289. doi: 10.1542/peds.2003-1065-L

‘Nothing Tastes as good as skinny feels…’ Kate Moss

18 Feb

There are many reasons that individuals develop eating disorders, from bullying to school pressures, media influence to family dischord. Many young women and men experience anorexia, with an approximate prevalence of 1/100 and 1/1000 respectively in the UK. Horrifically, the incidences of this disorder are increasing steadily, an incredibly concerning phenomenon considering that this illness is potentially fatal leading to the deaths of between 5 – 10% of its sufferers. It has become apparent that our celebrity obsessed, ‘perfection’ striving culture has begun to scrutinise individuals with growing ferocity over weight ‘issues’ and body shape; is it that this thin template which we created, is the cause for the increase in the prevalence of this plaguing mental disorder?

Media is becoming increasingly saturated within our society, with tabloids and ‘trashy’ magazines littering every news stand with suggestive images. A study by Harrison and Cantor (1997) acknowledged the influence of television viewing and thinness-depicting/thinness-promoting (TDP) media on individuals, observing the effects on eating disorder symptomology, a drive for thinness and body image. A total of 422 undergraduate student participants were studied, in which they filled in a self-report questionnaire indicating vulnerability to disordered eating and body image related thoughts. Results indicated that, although watching television programmes with predominantly thin characters (such as Beverly Hills 90210), did not appear to affect the measured variables for female participants, consumption of TDP media did. Those who read more gossip, fashion and fitness magazines were significantly more likely to portray overall disordered eating, anorexia, bulimia, body dissatisfaction and drive for thinness in their responses. These results are worrying, but the most startling results were from the male participants. Males who watched television programmes depicting slim/thin main male characters were more likely to endorse personal thinness and dieting, although magazine consumption yielded no clinically significant results. The most troubling result was the influence of media on the male participant’s perspectives of women. Men who read fitness magazines were more likely to endorse thinness in women as an important characteristic, whilst those who read men’s entertainment magazines (such as Playboy) expressed the highest levels of disappointment in the scenario that they arrive at a blind date to an overweight woman. Interestingly, men who watched programmes depicting heavier women expressed a preference for, not only the woman that he is dating to be thin, but also that her friends are too.

Although there are obvious issues with self-report methods and socially sensitive material which may affect the data, the incredibly significant sample size is difficult to ignore when considering validity. It could be the case that the participants are at an impressionable age (university undergraduates could be experiencing great levels of vulnerability, possibly a factor when they consider what is important to them; the pressure of a media saturated society could be difficult to ignore) it is at least worrying that such a sample, even if it can only be generalised to undergraduates, portray such levels of dissatisfaction for themselves and others. Such results should be considered when discussing whether there really should be guidelines and limitations to what can be published in mass consumed media.


Harrison, K., Cantor, J. (1997). The Relationship Between Media Consumption and Eating Disorders. Journal of Communication, 47 (1), DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1997.tb02692.x

For information about the prevalence of eating disorders in the UK, please visit

The Low Down on getting Down Low…

2 Feb

It is possible that nothing has changed over time and between cultures quite as much as the socialisation of sex. In Victorian England, a woman admitting to enjoying sex and indulging in seductive behaviours was not thought of as being normal and healthy (as is a common modern perspective) but a sign of madness. Culturally, some of the most Westernised societies celebrate sex, as not only an essential part of life, but also of recreation and society, whilst other cultures (e.g more orthodox Muslim communities) find sexual overtness, particularly from women, horrifying and shameful. With such variety in beliefs about sexual behaviour, it seems highly important that it is thoroughly studied. Seems easy enough, as pretty much everyone ‘does it’, right? Well, you’d think…

Finding a sample of willing participants could be the first hurdle to leap. Depending on the type of study, the enthusiasm of potential participants might dwindle – filling out an anonymous survey on sexual behaviour is far less invasive than certain… observational methods. For arguments sake, let’s say that the studies were more taboo, such as those performed by the first ‘famous’ sex researchers Masters and Johnson, who conducted studies for decades starting in the 1960’s, ranging from pelvic exams to direct observation of heterosexual intercourse. Would volunteers for this experiment provide a biased sample? If sexual biology and personality type were in any way linked, these more sexually overt individuals could skew any data collected; if the majority of people would not take in this type of study, can we call volunteers ‘average’?

Continuing the theme of more invasive studies, those which take objective measures of physiological arousal could be considered to collect more meaningful data. However, this may not be the case. Say that a participant is sitting in a room, with probes stuck places, being shown images or videos to gage what makes them aroused. This appears to have face validity, but does it have internal reliability? If I told you not to think of a pink elephant, you would immediately think of a pink elephant. Same issue here, the participant may be self-conscious, telling themselves ‘Do NOT get aroused!’ and end up becoming aroused in a situation that would ordinarily invoke no response. Is the experimenter testing arousal levels based on visual stimulation, or situational anxiety?

However, this is not the only way to study sex. Biology aside, self-report methods can be used to gather data on sexual behaviour. These, of course, are not without their issues. Data provided may not be an accurate representation of the sample, simply what they choose to report. For example, it has been found that male participants have a tendency to report sexual experiences more openly in questionnaires, but deny them in the presence of an interviewer (Koss and Gidycz, 1985). However, some deceptions may be innocent; who doesn’t want to genuinely see themselves in a more positive way, and so report that to others?

To conclude, sex is an important part of life, obviously, but it may also be one of life’s great mysteries. However many thousands of studies are performed, some hurdles will just never be broken down. Maybe life really should be full of surprises.



Koss, Mary. P., Gidycz, Christine. A (1985). Sexual Experiences Survey: Reliability and Validity. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 53 (3), 422-423. doi: 10.1037/0022-006X.53.3.422


For information on the history of sex research, including the work of Masters and Johnson, please visit:

God on the Brain?

15 Dec

Does being at one with God stimulate brain changes? Can mystical experiences be physically, objectively observed? Beauregard & Paquette (2006) sought to answer these questions, in an article entitled ‘Neural correlates of a Mystical experience in Carmelite nuns’.  In this study, fifteen nuns were requested to relive their most intense mystical experience, whilst researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to pinpoint areas of the brain which were activated. Control conditions included recalling an intense interpersonal experience, and a resting phase. Results indicated that it was not one area of the brain that was involved in mystical experiences, which had been previously assumed, but many.

The findings of the study do appear to agree with the title of the article; there appear to be neural effects observed when nuns are in a self-induced mystical state. However, methodological issues do question the validity of the study, for example, the small sample size indicates a lack of generalizability (although it is noted that the niche nature of the population is a hindrance to this). However, the most obvious limitation of this study is the experience which was recorded – a self-induced experience, rather than an organic one. Although previous studies have found that self-induced emotions activate the same areas of the brain as a true experience (Pelletier et al, 2003), emotional responses to events differ vastly from a mystical experience. This suggests that findings and reporting should be handled carefully, and that it is possible that the article title is a little presumptuous; it was not a mystical experience which was observed. Furthermore, it was difficult to gage the power of the experience, as they are subjective and were recorded with self-report questionnaires and qualitative interviews. This could reduce validity, as the intensity of experience is subjective; different participants may report identical experiences with different ratings and descriptions, hindering the extent to which their reports can be objectively recorded for measures.

The findings were explained with regards to the brain responses. Participants reported feeling the presence of God, as well as unconditional love, and this was observed in the areas of the brain which were activated – those involving self-perception and emotions of love.  This suggests that there is a link between neural correlates and mystical experience, although true experiences may never be objectively observed or recorded.

This study was later reported in The Guardian, under the headline ‘Nuns prove God is not a figment of the mind’.  This statement is an example of how the media exploit scientific research findings; never within the article did researchers claim to prove the existence of God, in fact, they explicitly stated that the study and its findings neither proved nor disproved the existence of God. However, the article does go on to vaguely outline the study and its findings, concluding that mystical experiences do appear to be ‘mediated’ by parts of the brain commonly associated with emotion, a correct deduction.

This blog has analysed the reporting styles of scientific studies, both from researchers and media representations.



Beauregard. M., Paquette., V. (2006). Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns. Neuroscience letters. 405. Pages 186-190


Highfield., R. 30th August 2006. Nuns prove God is not a figment of the mind. The Guardian


Pelletier. M., Bouthillier. A., Lévesque. J.,  Carrier. S., Breault. C., Paquette. V.,  Mensour. B., Leroux. J., Beaudoin. G.,  Bourgouin. P., Beauregard. M. (2003). Separate neural circuits for primary emotions? Brain activity during self-induced sadness and happiness in professional actors. Neuroreport. 14(8). Pages 1111-1116

Research into Sensitive Issues: Anorexia Nervosa

1 Dec

What is Anorexia Nervosa? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM) defines anorexia as a ‘refusal’ to maintain a healthy weight, associated with an ‘intense fear’ of weight gain and being perceived as fat. These fears are maintained even as the individual becomes dangerously underweight (a diagnosis of anorexia would only be applied if the individual’s Body Mass Index dropped below 17.5, whilst medically accepted ‘healthy’ weights fall between 20 – 25) and incurs severe health problems. In his meta-analysis, Neumärker found that 5.9% of cases of anorexia nervosa result in death, from health complications or suicide, giving anorexia nervosa the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

Within Psychology, all aspects of behaviour are studied, from how mirror neurons help us to empathise with one another, to the more sensitive research into mental illness and human suffering. Anorexia, therefore, must be studied extensively, so as to best understand and treat this phenomenon. However, gathering such sensitive information from people in the grips of a disorder which warps the individual’s beliefs, self-image, and often sense of reality (severe cases of anorexia and bulimia are often linked with psychotic symptoms, Hudsen, Pope, Jonas and Jonas, 1984), could be highly distressing for the individual. High levels of distress could possibly result in a hindrance to recovery. Furthermore, due to the highly secretive nature of the disorder, and how many individuals with anorexia infact feel that they do not want to recover (as this would mean engaging in weight-gain programmes etc), it may be difficult to gather material which truly represents the disorder. Many participants may be less than truthful in their responses in interviews in an attempt to avoid engaging in therapy.

These issues highlight the importance of careful choice of research methods into the disorder. Quantitative data can be gathered with greater ease – such as weight of participants, incidences of relapse/health consequences, mortality rates etc – but these only assess the physiological aspects of the disorder. The psychological effects must be assessed through qualitative data, with interviews being the most obvious choice. Although they may cause more distress to the participant, different approaches could reduce stress. It may be more sensitive to consider closed-ended questions rather than open-ended questions, to reduce ambiguity of responses and the participant’s feelings of being scrutinised. A questionnaire, rather than an interview, may elicit more truthful responses, as they could be confidential in nature.

To conclude, many issues within psychology are highly sensitive. Here discussed is an example of such: anorexia nervosa. It is important to conduct extensive research into such issues, however, protecting the participant from psychological harm must be considered when discussing methods of gathering qualitative data.


DSM-IV. American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC.

Neumärker, Klaus-Jürgen (1998). Mortality and Sudden Death in Anorexia Nervosa. International Journal of Eating Disorders. 21(3). Pages 205-212


Hudsen. J. I., Pope. H. G., Jonas. J. M. and Jr. (1984). Psychosis in Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia. British Journal of Psychiatry.145. Pages 420 – 423