Sears, D.O. (1986). College sophomores in the laboratory: Influences of a narrow data base on psychology’s view of human nature. JPSP, 51, 515-530.
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In this article, David Sears addresses an important external validity concern that has plagued much of social psychological research since the 1960s. The field of social psychology has turned towards an emphasis of examining college students in controlled laboratory settings. The reason seems to simply be one of convenience: college students are a cheap and easily accessible population to research. This in and of itself is not a problem; it only becomes a problem when the phenomenon being studied could reasonably be explained as a function of the developmental, social, cognitive, and/or affective state of being a late adolescent/young adult. Unfortunately, much of our research may be dependent on these factors. College students tend to have less crystallized attitudes, social relationships, and identities. They tend to be a select group of high-cognitive functioning, high-conformity individuals who would conceivably respond differently to laboratory tasks than members of other populations. As a result, social psychological research has portrayed human nature as cognitively-driven, quite unstable, and easily prone to external influence. The author suggests that researchers should practice "selective conversion and replication," where likely ecologically invalid studies be reexamined under new conditions, with more representative populations.
This paper represents a classical reading in social psychology for its role in urging the social psychological community to reassess its research methods and move forward in a way that allows conclusions to be made about human nature in general, and not simply the nature of college sophomores.
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