Unethical Research Case Study: OkCupid Experiment
Summary of The Unethical Research Case
The popular dating platform OkCupid was used in an experiment to determine if love is actually blind. The executives of the site wanted to put their matching algorithm on trial, so they completed a test on random users. The research concluded that if a user was told they had a high compatibility score with another user, they were more likely to reach out to them. They also found that users who were under the impression they were talking with someone who was a good match for them were almost two times as likely to send at least four messages (Wood, 2014). OkCupid also presented an experiment where they took away all photos from the app for seven hours. They concluded that users interacted more and were 44 percent more likely to communicate and exchange numbers versus when photos were present (Lee, 2014). So not only did the experiment test the OkCupid match algorithm, but it showed us more about human nature.
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Although some people argue the experiment was very wrong, there were no long-term damages done by completing it. Some people argue the worst thing that could have happened was that a participant went on a date that was unsuccessful with someone they matched with on the website. Even so, this is something that could potentially happen every day even without the use of a dating website (Selterman, 2018). The experiment was definitely questionable in regard to ethics, but all in all it really had little effect on the users. It was found that participants moods changed by less than one percent during the duration of the study, so people who were very angry may have been slightly overreacting (Selterman, 2018). Physically there was no harm and mentally there was only minimal harm, so this was a relatively minimal risk experiment.
Reflection of The Unethical Practices
Reflecting on the experiment, although it was not terribly harmful, there were still some unethical practices being used. It can be argued whether or not deception was being used but based on the fact that it was a minimal risk experiment, deception is technically allowed. The harm principle also comes into effect here, validating the practices used (Selterman, 2018). Some of the main unethical practices are that informed consent was not given to participants, it was not IRB approved research, and debriefing was only indirect.
IRB approved research is a topic that can be debated upon. Technically there are no global international standards (or even in America) involving review in place, and some countries do not even have a rule that research must be approved by an ethics board (Selterman, 2018). If OkCupid would have gone to an IRB board, it most likely would have been approved. Skipping this step most likely was a way to save time and conduct a quick experiment. Because of all the uncertainties presented involving IRB and its consistency, the lines can be blurry on if it was even really needed to be consulted upon for this testing.
Regarding the indirect debriefing, this also can be argued as acceptable. OkCupid sent out an email to users who were a part of the experiment and told them the true scores of their matches when it was over. They called the experiment a diagnostic test, which was interesting because Christian Rudder, cofounder, stated that the word experiment was an emotionally loaded word (Hill, 2014). This poses the question of if they were that invested into the experiment, why could they not have just told users the truth about what was going on from the start?
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To avoid something like this from happening again, relationship scientists or companies who know and understand this topic could be consulted. There would definitely need to be much more organization and partnerships formed in order to obtain accurate results. Users also need to read an agreement before they sign up for websites such as these. Rudder stated, “Guess what, everybody. If you use the internet, you’re the subject of hundreds of experiments at any given time, on every site. That’s how websites work” (Luca, 2014). While this is said to be true, transparency is something which could have and should have been given to users throughout this process. A simple approval of consent could have prevented this from blowing up the way it did.
In my opinion, I think this research being completed was worth the cost. The only really negative thing that happened were the backlash received. I think it serves as an example of what not to do in some aspects, but it also goes to show that rules can be bent regarding research. I think the information collected was not only helpful for OkCupid and their algorithm, but also useful regarding the understanding of human nature and the formation of relationships as well. Overall, the experiment presented some unethical practices, but the harm was minimal and at the end of the day it could have been way worse than it actually was. I think the experiment presented new perspectives and opportunities for growth and understanding in the future.
- Hill, K. (2014, July 29). OkCupid Lied To Users About Their Compatibility As An Experiment. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2014/07/28/okcupid-experiment-compatibility-deception/#6177951c77b1
- Lee, J. (2014, July 30). OkCupid unapologetic about mismatching users in dating experiment. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2014/07/29/okcupid-profile-experiments-online-dating/13308865/
- Luca, M. (2014, November 02). Were OkCupid’s and Facebook’s Experiments Unethical? Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2014/07/were-okcupids-and-facebooks-experiments-unethical
- Wood, M. (2014, July 29). OKCupid Plays With Love in User Experiments. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/29/technology/okcupid-publishes-findings-of-user-experiments.html
- Selterman, D. (2018, July 31). The Ethics of OKCupids Dating Experiment. Retrieved from https://www.luvze.com/the-ethics-of-okcupids-dating-experiment/
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