Questionable Social Science experiment - Is this ethical?

If there was a gazillionaire with money to burn, and an eager curiosity about the workings of the human mind and the effects of culture here is an experiment that such an individual might undertake. This would not be an experiment in a purely scientific sense as there would be no peer review etc. This would merely be an experiment in human nature to satisfy one persons curiosity.

Identify 10 poor people in a urban environment who have substance abuse histories. Specify they will be given $ 1000 per week (direct deposited into a bank account set up for them) for at least one year, and perhaps longer, but they must show up at a specific time and place each week to collect. Each person has a different time.

The location is a ground level downtown office some miles from where they live so some effort must be made to get there. It is a gift and they are not employed in any sense by the giver. If they miss just one meeting, by one second the payments are over forever. No excuses of any kind at all. Rain, sun shine, power outages, riots, earthquake. Doesn’t matter you must be there on time or the payments cease.

Experiment conducted to see what effect money has as a motivator to overcome obstacles. You know ahead of time that giving poor people money will quite probably make them highly dependent on you, and that if they are not likely to use the income all that wisely and may use it to indulge drug and addiction habits, and that if you cut them off they will probably be worse off than before you came into their lives.

Is this an ethical experiment?

Here are some of the ethical problems I see with the study.

It would not be ethical to conduct the study without peer review and a control group, because without those the results of the study would be too questionable to ever put to use. A study that has any potential to harm participants needs to be balanced against its potential benefits, and the potential benefits of just anecdotes, or satisfying one person’s curiosity, would be minimal.

Another ethical requirement would be informed consent. Getting informed consent from vulnerable populations is difficult. Could you really get to the point where these were rational adults understanding the experiment and entering into it voluntarily?

A third principle is that those who expect to benefit from research should participate in the research. If this study is motivated by something that would, in the long term, primarily benefit low-income substance abusers, then there would be a case for their participation. For example, if the gazillionaire were doing this to determine how to charter a charitable foundation, that might help the ethical case. If the sole benefit is to the gazillionaire, according to this principle he should be the only participant. He could put all his money in trust and conduct the experiment on himself.

APA’s code of ethics

But since you would not be doing this under the name of any institution or school, are you asking for personal opinions on the ethical nature of giving addicts a bunch of money to see if they will walk across town or whatever once a week to get it?

I’d say no. It sounds like a horrible idea. If you are handing known homeless/poor addicts $1000/week, I can only see these things happening:
the addict will overdose or at least spend the majority of the money on drugs, booze, etc for themselves and maybe others
the addict will harm you that day they are late and you cut them off
the addict will be harmed on the street the second someone else knows they have that much money

I really think it sounds quite cruel. These people don’t need the money as much as they need help first. You’d just be helping these addicts buy more drugs instead of helping them stop using and spend the money wisely.

As someone who reviews research on human subjects as part of her job, the killer point for me would be the amount of money involved. It’s high enough to be considered (IMO) coercive; i.e., that a reasonable or semi-reasonable poor person offered this chance to participate in this study might feel that they had absolutely no choice but to participate. This relates to Harriet’s point on informed consent - I think the informed portion of it might be covered, but there is a good point to make that they are not truly “willingly” giving consent.

You could possibly argue that this experiment is just a larger form of giving people handouts on the street. You could also argue that as adults, they have a responsibility to themselves to use their $1000 per week to better themselves.

I think it is highly unethical. It is playing with people for your own amusement in ways that have great potential for endangering them.

If you find the thought of that kind of experiment interesting, you might like the novel The Magic Christian by Terry Southern. Premise: a man uses his wealth to find out just how far people will go for money.

Thousand bucks a week, they could rent an apartment around the corner from the location they have to go to. Or hire a taxi from where they currently live. I don’t see the ‘difficult to get to’ bit being an issue with that kind of money.

The documentary Reversal of Fortune has a similar premise.

The filmmakers give a homeless schlub $100,000 in cash (which is incidentally set up for him to find in a brief case whilst dumpster diving).

So what happens?

He blows the whole wad within a year. He buys his buddy a new car and himself a new truck. The guy evidently had the requisite addiction problems and is seen guzzling booze with genuine gusto and the rest he just pissed away.

I’m sure the film is on DVD and it’s not half bad if somewhat short of a triumphant inspiration.

In terms of evaluating it as a social science experiement, I can think of three important problems with this analogy. First, dose does matter. It may be ethical to do an experiment where you give someone one aspirin. That doesn’t mean it would be ethical to give someone 50 aspirins. Second, the experiment is premised on selecting people who might be more susceptible to negative consequences than the general population. That would be like giving the 50 aspirins to people who already had a history of internal bleeding. Third, intent does matter. The intent of a charitable donation is different from the intent of research. In particular, you don’t typically make intrusive data-gathering efforts when you give someone a handout on the street.

From an ethical perspective, I think ethicists would not be unanimous in saying it is ethical to give handouts to people on the street. That puts the analogy on unstable ground from the start.

While I agree with your arguments, Harriet, I also see another side of them. As for the dose, another perspective on that is that giving handouts to people on the street with addiction problems is giving them just enough to keep their addiction going, and some people don’t agree with the ethics of that. Giving them a thousand a week is enough to allow them to turn their lives around if they have the will. There’s also an element of personal responsibility; you aren’t shoving 50 aspirins down their throats, but making them available to them - it’s up to the individual what he does with them.

I agree that this is a susceptible population; what might make the thought experiment even more interesting is to make the $1000 per week contingent on passing a weekly drug/alcohol test.

That would be an interesting twist. The original experiment was “Can you pay someone enough to be responsible for being in a specific place and time without fail each week, no matter what the obstacles”? This is much a higher bar as it demands addictive behavior change, but gives (nominally) enough money to live on while making that change. Effectively, “Can you bribe someone enough money not to be a drug addict”?

It might be a more interesting experiment, but I suspect the failure rate would be fairly high.

Isn’t this what the lottery’s for? Visit the same corner store every week, have an addiction (at least to gambling), win and end up worse off?

I’ve worked with various homeless people getting them housing over the years. Most of them simply will not do what they are suppose to do. They get into a place and will not pay their portion of the rent. When we had our rooming house, local social services would pay the person’s rent directly to us if they reported one day a month with a list of what they had done that month to get off welfare. It was hell each month getting them to report.

If you did such a study, I would bet that within six months 90% of the participants would have lost the money and their participation in the program. They wouldn’t show up one week, then show up next week with a “yeah, but” explanation.

I think you’re probably right, Annie. Not to sound too pompous, but there are reasons that not all of us are homeless.

Maybe another twist would be to make it impossible to stop the thousand a week - no matter what they did, it would still keep coming. Reverse psychology, like. See how truly dedicated to being homeless/addicted they are. :slight_smile: