The Double-Edged Sword of Rewards for Participation in Psychology Experiments

By Sharp, Elizabeth C.; Pelletier, Luc G. et al. | Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, July 2006 | Go to article overview

The Double-Edged Sword of Rewards for Participation in Psychology Experiments


Sharp, Elizabeth C., Pelletier, Luc G., Lévesque, Chantal, Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science


Abstract

This quasi-experimental study examined participation rates and sample characteristics of participants recruited with and without the offer of course credit. In Sample 1, where course credit is not usually offered, credit was added in one condition (N =195) and not in the other (N = 175). In Sample 2, where credit is usually offered, it was maintained in one condition (N = 92) and removed in the other (N = 178). Results in both samples revealed that participation rates were higher in the credit conditions; they plunged when customary rewards were taken away. Results also revealed evidence of sample bias. More specifically, the motivational characteristics of participants and nonparticipants differed in all conditions except the new credit condition.

Résumé

Cette étude quasi-expérimentale s'est penchée sur le taux de participation et les caractéristiques des participants recrutés avec ou sans l'offre de crédit de cours. Dans le cas de l'échantillon 1, où un crédit pour le cours n'était habituellement pas offert, un crédit a été ajouté dans une condition (N = 195) et ne l'était pas dans l'autre (N = 175). Pour l'échantillon 2, où le crédit est habituellement offert, il a été maintenu dans une condition (N = 92) et enlevé dans l'autre (N = 178). Les résultats dans les deux groupes à l'étude ont révélé que le taux de participation était plus élevé dans les conditions où un crédit était offert; la participation diminue de façon drastique lorsque les récompenses habituelles étaient enlevées. Les résultats ont également révélé une preuve de biais de l'échantillon. On constate notamment que les caractéristiques motivationnelles des participants et des non-participants différaient dans toutes les conditions, sauf dans la nouvelle condition où un crédit était offert.

An important challenge common to all research with human participants is recruiting a sufficient number who are representative of the population targeted, all in an ethical manner. Given the obvious ethical barrier to forcing unwilling individuals to participate in experiments, most research projects rely on volunteers recruited by invitation or the offer of some kind of incentive. A common incentive in North American universities is the provision of course credit - either in the form of bonus points or course requirement - to students in return for their participation in research through an organized subject pool. Sieber and Saks (1989) estimated that approximately 74% of graduate psychology departments in the United States have a subject pool, while Landrum and Chastain (1999) put the number at 32.7% for undergraduate programs. Does the use of a subject pool affect participation rates? Do they alter the distribution of research participants? The purpose of this study is to examine those issues.

Rate of Participation

One issue related to incentives is their effect on participation rates, an important consideration for the efficiency and cost-benefit impact of research. Research demonstrates that financial incentives resulted in higher participation rates for daily-diary measures (Lynn, 2001) and a community-based intervention research (Guyll, Spoth, & Redmond, 2003), and had no effect on recruitment for one laboratory study (Gribbin & Schaie, 1976). Korn and Hogan (1992) compared the effects of small and large course credits and financial incentives on students' reported willingness to participate. They found that larger incentives (5% grade points or $10) resulted in a greater willingness to participate than did smaller incentives (1% or $2) or the absence of a reward. However, the study did not measure actual participation.

A survey of Canadian universities (Lindsay & Holden, 1987) reported a participation rate of 47% for extra credit subject pools and 74.7% for course credit subject pools. There was no information on rates of participation in completely voluntary recruitment systems. Given these findings, the first goal of this research is to determine whether the provision of course credit in return for participation results in higher rates of participation. …

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