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Back to November Ed Reporter

Education Reporter
NUMBER 298 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS NOVEMBER 2010

UNC Researchers Ask Students to Imagine Incest
Distressed
Undergraduate students have long served as a readily accessible pool of human guinea pigs for professors who want to publish papers and psychology students who need to fulfill graduation requirements. At most schools, students enrolled in introductory psychology courses are offered extra credit or are compelled to participate in a certain number of experiments to fulfill course requirements.

Though most of these experiences are harmless enough, clinical psychologist Deborah Tyler was alarmed by the treatment of UNC-Chapel Hill students in a recent study conducted there. Tyler has a particular interest in how religious views are affecting higher education.

An article in the Behaviour Research and Therapy journal caught her eye because it purported to test the hypothesis that highly religious Protestants have greater obsessive-compulsive tendencies than do agnostics and atheists. "I was unprepared for the prejudice against Judaeo-Christian faith and the psychological mistreatment of undergraduates committed by this research," she wrote in an article for The Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

The study, conducted by department chairman Jonathan Abramowitz and graduate student Noah Berman, was designed to test a mental process called thought-action fusion (TAF). TAF refers to "faulty beliefs about the relationship between mental events and behaviors." These researchers associate TAF with obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD); their research premise was that if Christianity correlates with TAF and TAF correlates with OCD, then devout Christians are more likely to have OCD.

To investigate this theory, Abramowitz and Berman first tested 253 undergrads for "religiosity." Of those students, 43 were selected for a sample group of highly religious Protestants and 30 were selected for an agnostic/atheist sample group.

These two sample groups were asked to write down the name of a close and beloved relative. A computer screen then displayed one of two sentences intended to activate TAF beliefs. One sentence read, "I hope to have sex with [blank];" the alternative sentence read, "I hope [blank] is in a car accident today." Participants were then required to write down the sentence, filling in the name of the relative they had listed earlier, and to close their eyes and think about the event occurring. Student were then asked to rate their level of anxiety and "the perceived moral wrongness of thinking and writing down the thought."

Afterwards, the subjects were given a chance to "do anything you wish to reduce or cancel the effects of writing or thinking about the sentence" they had just written. Some students crossed out the sentence or tore up the paper; one participant took a picture of her loved one from her purse and cradled it next to her heart.

The researchers considered use of these "neutralizing behaviors" to be a significant indicator of "maladaptive" TAF in Christians, presumably because those actions indicated a level of remorse for thinking abhorrent thoughts about their relatives. Abramowitz and Berman revealed their anti-Christian bias in stating they were looking for TAF in people who are committed to "religious institutions [that] impose explicit moral standards for thinking and behaving" which would "foster the development of rigid and maladaptive beliefs about thoughts and their influence."

The researchers cited several biblical passages to demonstrate the hypothetical relationship between Christian morality and maladaptive TAF, including the 10th commandment against coveting. They also quoted Jesus' words from the Sermon on the Mount: "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:28).

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Tyler believes this study likely violated several fundamental principles of the ethical guidelines laid out by the American Psychological Association (APA). Since participation as a research subject is mandatory for undergrads majoring in psychology at UNC-Chapel Hill, Tyler considers the participation of any psychology majors "especially ethically suspect." Tyler also questions whether participants were adequately informed and later debriefed on the disturbing and possibly traumatizing thoughts that were part of the research. She wonders whether Christians were debriefed that the research was intended to "find a relationship between biblical teaching and mental illness."

Additionally, Tyler takes issue with the researchers' characterization of their methodology as evoking "harmless unwanted thought[s]," particularly since statistics indicate that several of the 73 participants have likely been victims of incest, and the researchers gave no indication that those students were screened out. Tyler has treated many incest survivors and noted that incest is "one of the most shame-producing and traumatic forms of sexual abuse, with permanent and far-reaching psychological effects."

Abramowitz and Berman noted that they are the first to use in vivo procedures, which are designed to cause emotional distress, in this kind of experiment. While they may consider their methodology groundbreaking, the novelty of their approach also means that the long-term effects on the research subjects are unknown.

Tyler also detects anti-Christian bias in the study conclusions. The researchers assumed that the neutralizing behaviors used more by Christians than agnostics and atheists to recover from thinking about incest or harm befalling their loved ones are signs of maladaptive TAF. "Using the same data . . . the case could as easily be made that feeling uncomfortable about incest and . . . wishing harm to a family member is a positive indicator of mental health," argued Tyler.

The public needs to know that taxpayer funds are being used for research that risks the psychological well-being of students and attempts to link Christian faith with mental illness, contends Tyler. "Do parents send their children to UNC to participate in this kind of research? Do North Carolinians understand the biases of the psychologists they are supporting [with their tax dollars]?" (popecenter.org, 8-10-10)


 
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