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Legality of "social experiments"

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There is a kind of entertainment called social experiments, aptly pranks, where the experimenters find strangers and put them in convoluted situations to see their responses. These are very fun to watch, and sometimes even used to show some sort of pervasive problem in a group of people.

 

I wonder though, I've read that in order to experiment with humans, social, psychological, biological, or otherwise, you need to get some sort of regulatory approval. Would doing such research without proper permission, especially if it lies over an ethical boundary, be cause for fines or some sort of prosecution?

 

These cases range from seeing if bar patrons are willing to buy underage military veterans drinks to walking around low-income crime-high neighbourhoods in flashy clothes to entice responses and sometimes attacks. Related, but I'm not so sure in the same class, was an experiment Facebook did where they limited posts on users' feeds to only those with certain emotional connotations, to see if this would in turn affect the user's own state of mind.

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If I understood correctly there are at least two elements to it. The first is about the actions. If what they do is only pretending, they are most likely not doing anything illegal. E.g. pretending to be engaged in underage drinking is certainly not illegal.

The second pertains to publishing e.g. videos of these things. For broadcasting you typically need release forms. For other purposes it may depend privacy laws which vary from country to country.

 

What you think in terms of approval are typically scientific studies. Here the regulations are typically not regulated by laws (again, with the exception of privacy and confidentiality laws) but they are mandated by a) the institution in which the research is conducted and b) funding agencies (which are typically governmental) and c) somewhat fuzzy but typically also somehow mandated by the research community. a) and b) requires similar or identical documentation and review by a board whereas c) assumes that your study has fulfilled ethical standards but typically does not have any enforcement.

 

What it means is that if you conduct studies and humans without having approval but without breaching any laws (including privacy and confidentiality laws) the institute may decide to terminate your position and/or the funding agencies may discontinue funding. In addition, you may get banned or at least shunned from professional associations and your peers. However, you won't get charged in the court of law.

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If I understood correctly there are at least two elements to it. The first is about the actions. If what they do is only pretending, they are most likely not doing anything illegal. E.g. pretending to be engaged in underage drinking is certainly not illegal.

The second pertains to publishing e.g. videos of these things. For broadcasting you typically need release forms. For other purposes it may depend privacy laws which vary from country to country.

 

What you think in terms of approval are typically scientific studies. Here the regulations are typically not regulated by laws (again, with the exception of privacy and confidentiality laws) but they are mandated by a) the institution in which the research is conducted and b) funding agencies (which are typically governmental) and c) somewhat fuzzy but typically also somehow mandated by the research community. a) and b) requires similar or identical documentation and review by a board whereas c) assumes that your study has fulfilled ethical standards but typically does not have any enforcement.

 

What it means is that if you conduct studies and humans without having approval but without breaching any laws (including privacy and confidentiality laws) the institute may decide to terminate your position and/or the funding agencies may discontinue funding. In addition, you may get banned or at least shunned from professional associations and your peers. However, you won't get charged in the court of law.

 

Thank you!

 

Since posting, I read more about Human Subjects Research laws in several states the U.S., however, that "...empowers the Attorney General to seek injunctive or other judicial relief to prevent unlawfully conducted human subject research.".

 

More: http://mlis.state.md.us/2002rs/billfile/hb0917.htmwith similar statutes in New York and California.

 

This makes it a bit tough to tell, but research there is approximately defined as "systematic investigation designed to contribute to or develop generalized knowledge", so a resultant entertainment video might not find itself in the legal net.

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Yes, states can have stricter laws than the federal ones, which are unified in the "Common rule" among the agencies. I would assume that a number of circumstances will be considered to establish whether something is indeed a research project or just pure entertainment (including based on who is doing it and how consent is sought).

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