Are college students representative of humanity? Psychologists must ask this since they base much of their research on the reactions and behavior of college students in introductory psychology classes. Can one hope to predict the mental processes of a 64-year-old man in India based on how a group of relatively affluent Americans in their late teens reacts? It seems unlikely; yet, psychologists continue to use this group in their research. What are the upsides and downsides of treating a group of relative outliers as a representative sample?
One advantage to using students in introductory psychology classes as subjects is that they are easy to corral. In most cases, the students will be required to participate in a study to complete the course or will receive extra credit for doing so. Even if students are not required to participate in a study, many will be curious if offered the opportunity. Because so many psychological researchers do work at academic institutions, this pool of test subjects is infinitely available and renews itself every semester.
By using class credit as an incentive to participate in the study, researchers avoid having to provide the monetary incentives that would usually be required to attract subjects. Even the need to provide for subjects' transportation is not necessary, since the studies take place at research labs on the college campus.
Issues of Representation
The biggest downside of using college psychology students as subjects is that they are not in any way representative of the larger human population. College students tend to be younger, wealthier and more Westernized than the world's average citizen. This is fine when researchers are specifically interested in that demographic, but unfortunately, researchers use college students when that is not the case. If researchers apply psychological studies that use college students as a normative baseline to the general population, many may find themselves categorized as abnormal simply because they are not college students in psychology classes.
College students make convenient research subjects. However, using them as a baseline for psychological research may come with collateral damage for people outside of this demographic. It can be tough for researchers to get subjects, especially if they are not working with big budgets, and so the use of college students in psychological research is likely to continue. In an ethical sense, though, it is important for all researchers who work with limited populations to make it clear that their results may be limited to that population as well.
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