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THE WATERGATE EXPERIMENT

In the Watergate affair of 1974, men loyal to then President Richard Nixon broke into the headquarters of the Democratic Party at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC, to photograph documents pertinent to the 1972 election campaign. Their bungling of the job, and the subsequent cover-up by Nixon and his staff at the White House, led to the unprecedented resignation of the president of the United States from office in 1974. Soon thereafter, West et al. conducted their experiment.

They confronted 80 different students with a proposition to burglarize a local advertising firm. Participants were randomly assigned to one of four conditions. In the first condition, participants were told that the job was to be done for the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS, it seemed, needed to get the goods on this company to bring them to trial for tax evasion. If the participants were caught in the act, then the government would guarantee immunity from prosecution. In the second condition, participants were told that there was no immunity from prosecution.

In the third condition, participants were told that another advertising agency had paid $8,000 for the job, and that they (the participants) would get $2,000 for their part in it. (Remember, that was $2,000 in 1979—about $6,000 today.) Finally, in the fourth condition, participants were told that the burglary was being committed just to see if the plan would work. Nothing would be taken from the office.

Understand that this was not a ‘‘let’s pretend’’ exercise. Participants were not brought into a laboratory and told to imagine that they were being asked to commit a crime. This was for real. Participants met the experimenter at his home or at a restaurant. They were all criminology students at a university and knew the experimenter to be an actual local private investigator. The private eye arranged an elaborate and convincing plan for the burglary, including data on the comings and goings of police patrol cars, aerial photographs, blueprints of the building—the works.

The participants really believed that they were being solicited to commit a crime. Just as predicted by the researchers, a lot of them agreed to do it in the first condition, when they thought the crime was for a government agency and that they’d be free of danger from prosecution if caught. What do you suppose would happen to your sense of selfworth when you were finally debriefed and told that you were one of the 36 out of 80 (45%) who agreed to participate in the burglary in the first condition? (See Cook [1975] for a critical comment on the ethics of this experiment.) (box 4.7).

BOX 4.7

RESEARCH AND INSTITUTIONAL REVIEW BOARDS

The key ethical issue in the conduct of all social research is whether those being studied are placed at risk by those doing the studying. This goes for field research—including surveys, ethnographies, and naturalistic experiments—as much as it does for laboratory studies. All universities in the United States have long had Institutional Review Boards, or IRBs. These are internal agencies whose members review and pass judgment on the ethical issues associated with all research on people, including biomedical and psychosocial. The concept of informed consent has developed and matured over the years. All researchers are asked by the IRBs to describe clearly and precisely what steps will be taken to ensure that people who participate in research will be protected from harm. And not just physical harm. Research participants should not experience emotional harm or financial harm, either.

With regard to the protection of human subjects, most research in cultural anthropology is covered by the Common Rule, from the National Science Foundation (http://www.nsf.gov/bfa/dias/policy/docs/45cfr690.pdf). For more information about NSF's policies, go to http://www.nsf.gov/bfa/dias/policy/human .jsp. The rules of the protection of human subjects in biomedical research come from the National Institutes of Health and its constituent funding agencies (the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute of Mental Health, and so on). Goto http://ohsr.od.nih.gov/info/sheet5.html and http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp.

 
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