Wednesday, January 13, 2010

In the Literature: Altruism, the Self and Genetic Research

Ethicists and medical researchers often think about the barriers to participation in research. People want to know exactly what keeps potential participants away from a valuable research project? Likewise, many want to know what could be done to (safely and fairly) lower the barriers to participation in research. The opposite question, however, is equally interesting: Why do people do it? What motivates patients and others to consent to medical research?

Nina Hallowell, et al. examine these questions in the context of cancer research and biobanks in their recent paper “An investigation of patients’ motivations for their participation in genetics-related research” (J Med Ethics. 2010 Jan;36(1):37-45). The authors conducted interviews with 59 patients formerly enrolled in research studies at a regional genetics service (Wessex Clinical Genetics Service, Southampton, UK). After pouring through what must have been a large stack of transcripts, the authors identified three frequently expressed motivations: 1) “Selfish” – subjects expected to benefit from the research by receiving better care or other rewards; 2) Familial altruism – subjects wanted to contribute to efforts that might help future cancer patients (including grandchildren) in their families; and 3) Social altruism – subjects expressed a desire to do something that would benefit society and improve the health of all. After using these categories to evaluate the motivational statements, the authors declined to assert that any single type was a sufficient description of why patients consent to genetic research studies. They write: "these framings were frequently juxtaposed within the interviews, so that, in practice, it was difficult to characterise interviewees’ accounts as either self- or other-oriented". And again: "drawing upon any one motive to account for one’s behaviour in this context is not sufficient, for each motive would appear to impact upon, alter and modify others in a recursive or dynamic fashion".

They also provide a graphic to help us visualize the inter-related motivators in the genetic research participation engine:

My thoughts:

While I do not doubt that motivations are multi-layered and that a single individual may be motivated simultaneously by personal need and social altruism, I think the authors decided to down play the importance of the "personal framing" (or “selfish reasons”) in subjects’ decisions to consent to genetic research. In fact, the paper reports: "The majority of interviewees, like P124, offered personally motivated reasons for their research participation at some point in their interview". The importance of self-centered motivations is also clear in the graphic above. In other words, while it may be difficult to untangle these motivations, the gears might stop turning altogether if one were to remove "personal framing". I do not think the authors would disagree with me (and if they read this post, they are more than welcome to comment); perhaps the authors do not want to lose the point that altruism cannot be a stand-alone motivator. In fact, the discussion ends with a compelling statement:

Such observations suggest that we may need to rethink the concept of altruism … the “moral character of research participation”. Also, as we noted earlier, we need to recognise that when it comes to accounting for research participation we can no longer regard altruism and selfishness as incompatible or oppositional concepts. Indeed, it would appear that research participation is experienced as a more ethically contentious activity than has heretofore been assumed.


Hallowell N, Cooke S, Crawford G, Lucassen A, Parker M, Snowdon C. An investigation of patients' motivations for their participation in genetics-related research. J Med Ethics. 2010 Jan;36(1):37-45. PubMed PMID: 20026692.


Dixon-Woods M, Tarrant C. Why do people cooperate with medical research? Findings from three studies. Soc Sci Med. 2009 Jun;68(12):2215-22. Epub 2009 Apr 24. PubMed PMID: 19394741.

Geller G, Doksum T, Bernhardt BA, Metz SA. Participation in breast cancer susceptibility testing protocols: influence of recruitment source, altruism, and family involvement on women's decisions. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 1999 Apr;8(4 Pt 2):377-83. PubMed PMID: 10207643.

Treloar SA, Morley KI, Taylor SD, Hall WD. Why do they do it? A pilot study towards understanding participant motivation and experience in a large genetic epidemiological study of endometriosis. Community Genet. 2007;10(2):61-71. PubMed PMID: 17380055.

Other Recent Predictive Health Ethics Articles – PubMed, Nov 2009 -Jan 2010

-- J.O.