There are many issues faced by psychologists when conducting research, a large area being ethical issues. Ethical issues are when “researchers put participants in a situation where they might be at risk of harm as a result of their participation. Harm can be defined as both physical and psychological.” (Trochim, 2006). Ethical issues are important when researching any human beings, and especially with children. Many studies have been conducted in the past which would be deemed as highly unethical today, however these are some of the most famous studies conducted by psychologists, for example Zimbardo (1971), and Milgram (1963). There have been many changes made since then in order to solve these issues and allow psychological research to be monitored so that they are ethical.
One of the most important ethical issues is protection from harm. Researchers must make sure that participants don’t experience any kind of psychological or physical harm as a result of taking part in their study, but it is not always easy to be able to detect psychological harm as participants and/or researchers may not be aware that participants have been harmed in this way. However, researchers can do all they can in order to prevent this from happening.
Confidentiality is another important issue when conducting research. This means that results must be completely anonymous, so no one can identify the participants from the results. This ensures the safety of the participant and their personal details.
Having the right to withdraw is another ethical issue. Participants should be fully aware that they are free to leave the study at any time and withdraw their results at any time if they wish to do so. This is necessary as some participants could feel pressured into carrying on with taking part in a study, and it helps to stop participants from feeling uncomfortable with the results that they obtain.
Informed consent is another issue whereby the participant must give their full permission for the researchers to use their results, after being told the true aims of the study. If this has not been given by participants, then their results are not allowed to be used and involved in the analysis.
Debriefing is an important issue which must always take place after a study is over. It is done to make sure that the participants have not been harmed in any way during or after the study, and to ensure that the researchers have fully informed consent. It allows participants to remove their results from the study if they wish to do so, and gives them the chance to ask any questions they may have in order to fully understand the nature of it.
Deception is a huge issue which is still often used in studies today. This is when participants are misled in any way and can involve the use of confederates to do so. Some studies still require this in order to prevent demand characteristics. This must be done to ensure that there are no confounding variables impacting on the results and conclusions of the study, and to ensure that the results are valid. However, debriefing in these kinds of studies is extremely important as this is the only time participants are made fully aware of what they study is actually about, which is the only time they are able to give fully informed consent.
One example of previous research that has been done which faces ethical issues is Zimbardo (1971). This study involved 24 male participants who were assigned to either the ‘guard’ condition or the ‘prisoner’ condition in a simulated prison at Stanford University. Zimbardo wanted to find out whether brutality in American prisons was due to dispositional or situational factors. The study found that the participants quickly conformed to the assigned roles – the guards were being brutal to the prisoners even though before the study they showed no sadistic qualities, suggesting this was due to the prison environment. There were many ethical issues clearly involved in this study. There was arguably not fully informed consent from participants as Zimbardo himself did not know what could happen in the study, and the participants who were ‘prisoners’ did not give consent to be ‘arrested’ at home. There was also a huge breach of protection from harm, as some participants were experiencing humiliation and distress. For example, a ‘prisoner’ was released after 36 hours because they had a screaming and crying fit and showed high levels of anger and distress. Also, ‘prisoners’ were made to strip down.
Milgram’s 1963 study was another ethically questionable study which involved 40 male participants who were assigned to a ‘teacher’ role, and a confederate who was assigned to a ‘learner’ role. The ‘teacher’ was required to read out some word pairs and if the ‘learner’ got any wrong when reciting them, a shock had to be administered by the ‘teacher’. The participants had been told that they were going to participate in research on memory and learning, and therefore consented to take part based on this knowledge, so fully informed consent was not gained by Milgram as the participants did not know the true nature of the study (that it was actually a study into obedience). However, arguably informed consent was gained after the participants were debriefed. The participants were necessarily deceived in Milgram’s defence, because if the participants knew the aim of the study before or during, there would have been demand characteristics which would have messed up the results of the study. Participants’ right to withdraw was arguably breached due to prods that the ‘experimenter’ gave, including “please continue”, which could have caused participants to carry on even though they didn’t really wish to do so. Also, many participants showed distress, for example three participants had uncontrollable seizures.
Both the British Psychological Society (BPS) and the American Psychological Association (APA) give ethical guidelines which researchers must adhere to for their research to be accepted as ethical. The BPS Code of ethics and conduct was published in 2009. It includes standards of respect (which ensures researchers value the dignity and worth of all participants), competence (which ensures researchers are aware of their capabilities and limits of their training, knowledge, and experience), responsibility (which ensures researchers understand the responsibilities they have to participants, the public, and psychology), and integrity (which ensures researchers are honest, accurate, and fair). The APA Ethical Standards of Psychologists was published in 1953 which was the first ethical code they created and was over 170 pages long. It presented many ethical dilemmas that psychologists wrote to the committee about, although, the makers of this first code allowed it to be a continual work in progress. The APA adopted the ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct in 2002, then amended it in 2010, and again in 2016. Now, the 2017 edition is only 16 pages long. The code gives ethical standards information including how to resolve ethical issues, competence, human relations, privacy and confidentiality, advertising, record keeping, education and training, research and publications, assessment, and therapy.
Since this introduction of ethical guidelines, there have been improvements in the ethics of studies. One example of this is a partial replication of Milgram (1963) conducted by Burger (2009). This study replicated Milgram in as many ways as it ethically could, however it made several changes in the procedure of the study. In Milgram’s study, shocks went up to 450V so many participants became distressed towards the end, which was unethical. Burger noted that in Variation 5 of Milgram’s experiment, all the participants who dropped out did so by 150V and the participants who continued after 150V went on to the end. So, 150V was named the “point of no return”. Therefore, in Burger’s study, if participants went to continue past 150V, the experiment would be stopped and it was assumed that they would carry on to 450V, preventing them from experiencing high levels of distress. Also in Burger’s study, participants were told at least three times that they could withdraw from the study at any time. However, this was not done in Milgram’s study. The participants were therefore made more aware of their right to withdraw in this study than in Milgram’s. Also in Burger’s replication, the participant only received a 15V sample shock as opposed to the 45V sample shock given to participants in Milgram’s study (these were done to give a taste of what the shocks felt like for the learner), therefore meaning that there was less physical harm done to the participants in Burger’s study as the shock they received was lower.
To conclude, we can see that there have been many issues in past with ethics. However, due to these issues being addressed and solutions being created such as the ethical codes, research is now not allowed to be conducted if it breaks the guidelines that these codes set out. Deception, however, is still necessary in much research conducted by psychologists as it is the only way to reduce demand characteristics in certain circumstances, but it is only acceptable so long as participants are fully debriefed and consenting after data has been gathered.