Altruism and participation in longitudinal health research? Insights from the Whitehall II study

Mein, Gill, Seale, Clive, Rice, Helen, Johal, Suneeta, Ashcroft, Richard E, Ellison, George and Tinker, Anthea (2012) Altruism and participation in longitudinal health research? Insights from the Whitehall II study. Social Science & Medicine, 75(12), pp. 2345-2352. ISSN (print) 0277-9536


Research that follows people over a period of time (longitudinal or panel studies) is important in understanding the ageing process and changes over time in the lives of older people. Older people may choose to leave studies due to frailty, or illness and this may diminish the value of the study. However, people also drop out of studies for other reasons and understanding the motivation behind participation or drop out may prevent further loss of valuable longitudinal information and assist the continuation of longitudinal studies. This paper examines qualitative data from interviews and focus groups in 2003/2008 with participants of the Whitehall II Study (based at UCL), and investigates reasons participants give for participating in longitudinal health studies, and recommendations they give for encouraging continued participation as they grow older. A total of 28 participants and 14 staff were interviewed, and 17 participants took part in focus groups. Our findings are discussed in the light of the debate between of altruism and reciprocity. Rather than being wholly motivated by altruism, as research staff had assumed, participants were motivated by the benefits they perceived, particularly the information and care received during the medical examinations and the sense of loyalty and membership associated with being part of the study. Our findings support the view that far from being primarily motivated by altruism, research participation in studies such as this may also involve a degree of implicit and explicit reciprocity. However, participants disliked the obligation to complete the study questionnaires - which may have influenced the expectation of payment or reciprocation, as participation was not wholly pleasing. To try and maintain participation in longitudinal health studies this project recommended gathering information from exit interviews as a way of preventing further withdrawals and closer involvement of participants through a user panel.

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