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I can think of a range of questions that relate hypothetical assumptions that are not true, and probably will never be true. But the question builds on that assumption to ask a meaningful psychological question.

Here's one we had on the site:

Here's a few others that I can imagine:

  • Would it be more adaptive for humans to have four arms?
  • How would social relationships change if asexual reproduction was possible?
  • What would be the effect on mother-child bonding if babies could be produced in plastic tubes?

Meta Question

  • Are such questions on topic for this site? Why? Why not?
  • If on topic, what are the requirements of such questions?
  • Should they have a specific tag?
  • Your question has poor examples. Four arms would be off topic. We do have asexual reproduction. We are unlikely to see time travel in our lifetime. The replacing a uterus with plastic container could be a subject when scientists have already achieved such with animals and there is research on it and a view to it happening with people. Otherwise we are discussing the hypothetical. – user3543 Oct 4 '13 at 15:58
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To prevent your question from being flagged and possibly removed, avoid asking subjective questions where …

  • you are asking an open-ended, hypothetical question: “What if ____ happened?”

Sounds to me like it falls under one of the canonical examples from the site help.

  • I agree, we are talking about what happens during time travel, which is why I answered with a tongue in cheek approach citing doctor who. I mean one could ask what are the psychological implications when a Vulcan and human have children? Is a lack of empathy in the offspring considered pathological or to be expected. Please ;) – user3543 Oct 4 '13 at 13:51
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These sort of questions should be held to a higher standard of initial research than other questions on the site. For your specific examples:

  • If the person is asking about time-travel then they should should familiarity with how physicists and computer scientists think about time travel.
  • If they are asking about the adaptiveness of four-arms then their question has to show a basic understanding evolutionary theory, and what effects having two arms has had on our brain/culture.
  • If they are ask about social relationships and asexual reproduction then their question should show a knowledge of existing literature on the role of sex, reproduction, and child rearing or relationships. It should also be sensitive to existing non-reproductive, and asexual (in the sexual orientation, not reproduction, sense) romantic relationships.
  • If they ask about test-tube babies and mother-child bonding then they should show knowledge of existing bonding research (for instance, postpartum depression), and a grasp of actual studies of artificial reproduction (whether it is host-mothers, adapted children, or studies in non-human animals).

Without these higher standards (we've already dropped our standards too low on most questions), the questions should be quickly closed as not serious, subjective, and lack-of-initial research. They should also be downvoted as bad questions.

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I think we need to differentiate your examples.

Human beings will very likely never have four arms, because our skeleton is not made to support four arms. It (very likely) simply won't work, from an anatomical perspective.

Such questions are non-sense questions, and I don't see their merit.

Asexual reproduction and test tube babies are a reality, on the other hand. While we don't know if such procedures will become widespread in the future, psychologists might play a crucial role in determining wether or not our society should support or ban them.

Psychologists are not prophets, but meteorologists or economists aren't prophets, either, and still they earn their daily bread by attempting to predict the future. Since most political decisions affect human emotional well-being, psychology as a discipline has the duty to attempt to predict these effects. We cannot let laymen decide the fate of a nation from an economic perspective alone.

Therefore, yes, questions about plausible future developments are definitely within the scope of our sciences and therefore ontopic. It does not matter that our disciplines cannot answer many of such questions at the moment, but I don't see why we shouldn't attempt to research and document the foundations that might have been already laid, and point out directions for future research in the same way that every journal article does.

My prerequisite for an answer to such a question would be that it is not merely opinion and speculation, but provides quotable theories or related research.

For example, the Wikipedia article on In vitro fertilisation ("test tube babies") summarizes the results of a study:

In a 2005 Swedish study,[19] 166 women were monitored starting one month before their IVF cycles, and the results showed no significant correlation between psychological stress and IVF outcome. The study concluded with the recommendation to clinics that it might be possible to reduce the stress experienced by IVF patients during the treatment procedure by informing them of those findings. While psychological stress experienced during a cycle might not influence an IVF outcome, it is possible that the experience of IVF can result in stress that leads to depression. The financial consequences alone of IVF can influence anxiety and become overwhelming. However, for many couples, the alternative is infertility, and the experience of infertility itself can also cause extreme stress and depression.

This is a perfect example of actual research into a future problem. It does not directly answer the question about mother-child bonding, but it does relate to that question (it as been intensely studied how postpartum depression affects the relationship between mother and child) and it is well possible that other psychological aspects of in vitro fertilization haven been studied but not documented on Wikipedia.

  • This is a perfect example of actual research into a future problem. We've done IVF and have a handle on the physiological processes involved. It would be a big stretch to say that we've done anything that's related to the physiological effects of time travel (any experiments that were done on astronauts returning from space non-withstanding). If those answering the time travel question had anything to go on, it would be fine. – Chuck Sherrington Oct 4 '13 at 17:40
  • @ChuckSherrington The "future problem" of my answer is not IVF, but its widespread, common use and the effects of this use on relationships in general. Think of marriage: its ideal and morality affects even those of us that aren't married. If IVF became as widespread as marriage still is today, it would alter the fundamental values of our society, thus altering all relationships, not just those between each individual mother and her own child. That is the future problem that psychology might attempt to predict. Time travel is non-sense and does not belong on this site. – user3116 Oct 4 '13 at 17:55
  • I get you now. I thought you were trying to draw an analogy to other future research, like the time travel piece. Okay! – Chuck Sherrington Oct 4 '13 at 18:01
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My first instinct was to say that such questions should not be allowed on the site. They are not serious questions or they are impossible to answer accurately. And we often talk about the impact of seeing certain types of questions on new users of the site, and whether such questions will attract the right kinds of users.

However, the other part of me finds it quite interesting to ponder the implications of changing one aspect of reality but holding psychological theory broadly constant. Clearly, there are rules for answering such questions, and there are better and worse answers. So, my preference would be to give such questions a chance, and just reward well written answers that are well grounded in psychological theory.

  • 1
    Surely, they could be considered as 'thought exercises', very theoretical cognitive science. – user3554 Oct 3 '13 at 0:51

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