Are Free Participants Really Free?

If you are conducting a psychology study in a university, you may think you are in luck — there are free participants available to you from the Psych 101 class. Those folks, by virtue of taking the class, are directed to do a certain number of hours as study participants. If they don’t complete the hours, they don’t pass the class. But are these “voluntold” subjects really the participants who will help your study?

School administrators give different reasons for why these Psych 101 (or similar courses) students must participate in university experiments, including: “the value of experimental learning”, “to obtain knowledge”, and “exposure to various research topics”. The Federal (HHS) IRB guidelines give a nod to that reasoning but also discuss the true justification for it: “Clearly… participation of students is seen by faculty-investigators as necessary to the conduct of their research. Grant budgets often do not allow investigators to pay subjects; giving course credit or extra credit is a means of obtaining sufficient participation rates.” However you spin it, these are college-aged adults who are being told to participate in a study or fail the class. While many schools offer an alternate option, such as reading research articles and writing reports, consider if that’s a realistic alternative. Will a student do all of that research and writing when they can just sit in a lab and answer questions for an hour?

Putting aside the ethics, are these participants giving accurate responses? On the one hand, having “volunteers” that are forced to give their time to the lab exacerbates the biases of the participants. A “negativistic subject” (one who is upset at having to give up their time by being forced into a study) will want to disprove whatever he/she thinks the researcher’s hypothesis is, or may just give random answers to get out of the lab quicker. On the flip side of that coin is the “apprehensive subject”, who wants to look good in the eyes of the experimenter. The apprehensive subject is more likely to skew their answers to look good when they’ve met that professor/researcher/other student before or think that the professor may know their professors. In the same vein, a “good subject” is one who wants to benefit science or the researcher and will tell the researcher what the subject thinks the researcher wants to hear. The good subject will try to be even more supportive of whatever he thinks the hypothesis is (right or wrong), especially when that researcher has control of their grade.

Certainly, incentivizing participants and compensating them for time and travel will make them less likely to resent or fear the researcher and more likely to provide accurate opinions. It’ll make them feel like they are participating of their own volition instead of being forced. Also, if you cannot use course credits to obtain “voluntold” participants, you’ll have to do some creative recruiting. In one university study, after spending over two years with banners, presentations, kiosks, posters, and personal outreach to recruit 57 participants, the researchers concluded that: “The most difficult aspect of this investigation was attaining volunteers without offering credit. Many students do not give their time to participate in a volunteer activity without compensation.”

Whether you look at conscripted volunteers from Psych 101 or recruited volunteers from the outside, ensure that your study accounts for bias and normalizes for any motivations or grudges. Weigh your budget against recruitment availability and time constraints, and be aware of the bias that forced participation may introduce into your results.


Research And Me recommends that if you are using a pool of pre-arranged participants (e.g., student volunteers), combine them with external participants who are participating in your research for something other than a course grade. This will provide a good side-by-side comparison, allowing you to normalize for participant bias, and can end up saving you time and money in the long run. Research And Me makes this comparison easy by both sourcing external participants and providing tools to combine them with an existing participant pool.

Are Free Participants Really Free?

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