The College Student as Experimental Subject

Part: 
Four
Chapter: 
3

The issue of representativeness has also been raised with regard to the college student as experimental subject, with the implication that the college student hardly represents "real people" in the "real world:" To reduce the issue to one of demographics is an oversimplification. If we are interested in the question of human response to sexually explicit materials, why should being in college or being male for that matter be a problem? As Berkowitz and Donnerstein (1982) point out, "The meaning the subjects assign to the situation they are in and the behavior they are carrying out plays a greater part in determining the generalizability of an experiment's outcome than does the sample's demographic representativeness or the setting's mundane realism." (p. 249)

Having said that, we also need to point out that there are, in fact, other attributes of the subject who participates in experiments involving exposure to sexually explicit materials that might have an impact on the interpretations of experimental results. Results from various studies suggest that:

  1. Males, more than females, are likely to volunteer for sex-related experiments (Kendrick, et al., 1980).
  2. Subjects who are willing to watch sexually explicit materials also tend to be sexually liberal, more sexually experienced, less anxious about sexual performance, and have fewer objections to pornography (Kaats and Davis, 1971; Farkas, et al., 1978; Wolchick Spencer and Lisi, 1983; Wolchick, Braver and Jensen, 1985).
  3. Volunteer rates drop for both men and women the more intrusive the experimental conditions. Volunteer rates dropped by two-thirds (from thirty-eight percent to thirteen percent) for women and by over half for men (from sixty-seven percent to thirty percent) with the requirement of partial undressing to accommodate physiological arousal measurements (Wolchick, Braver and Jensen, 1985).

If participants are in fact more liberal, more experienced, and more accepting of sexually explicit materials, then it is certainly plausible that the "error;" if there is one, might be in the direction of null findings, while observed effects, particularly in the short term, might be indicative of their robustness (Eysenck, 1984). In any case, it is apparent that these other attributes ought to at least be considered in both the design and interpretation of experimental studies involving sexually explicit materials.