In Psychology, ethical issues must always be considered. The British Psychological Society (BPS) and the American Psychological Association (APA) provide ethical frameworks for psychologists to adhere to when conducting psychological research but sometimes it is necessary to sidestep these considerations in order to advance scientific knowledge. So-called ‘gray areas’ of ethics are hotly debated and remain on the fringes of ethical debates. Is it ever possible to say that undue stress caused by an experiment is worth it in terms of what it provides the scientific community? Many of the best-known psychological studies have been hugely unethical when applied against current standards set out by the BPS and APA. Consider Milgram’s (1963) study on obedience and subsequent replication and variations – did they provide insight into obedience that teaches humans important lessons or were the findings obvious? If Milgram had adhered to contemporary codes of ethics, would the results have been so clear and decisive?
There are 6 main ethical considerations you need to know for the International Baccalaureate Psychology course. These are interrelated and can be easily remembered temporally (through time). Start at the beginning of an experiment and work through events in sequence: what needs to be considered first?
- Informed consent
- Protection from harm
- Right to withdraw
Of course, it does not matter how you remember these but in this order, there is a clear sequence through the study.
- First, researchers must gain written consent before they can conduct the study or experiment. Of the exceptions here, covert observational studies are obvious in needing to avoid this consent. Do not make the mistake of thinking that this makes it ethical, however. Covert studies flout this ethical consideration but must show that the findings are meaningful enough to justify not gaining consent prior to the study. In the same way, misinforming participants about the purpose or methodology of the research study they are agreeing to be part of also raises ethical concerns and leads on to the next ethical consideration. In covert observation, the Hawthorne Effect is less likely to bias the study when participants are unaware of their participation, for example.
- Deception means in any way deliberately misinforming, misleading, or not being fully transparent with participants so that they are unaware of the purpose of a study or its methodology. This may include using confederates, as with Milgram’s and Asch’s social experiments, or tricking participants in simpler ways. Any deception must be absolutely necessary, such as to avoid bias through demand characteristics, influencing the results of the study. All deception must be made aware to all participants during the required debriefing.
- Protection from harm means that researchers have a duty not to cause psychological or physical harm to participants (including stress). Participants should leave any study in the same condition as when they entered it. This is difficult to prove but is often commonsense-based. For example, a study requiring a participant to put themselves in a dangerous situation obviously entails the possibility of forming stressful episodic memories of the event and therefore the experiment or study affects them beyond its scope. Milgram’s study is a classic case of potentially harming participants. Even today, reality shows based on psychological manipulation, such as Derren Brown’s (2018) “The Push” (on Netflix) attempt to reconfigure the boundaries for what is considered ethically acceptable in the name of entertainment. Harm does not mean temporary embarrassment such as may have been caused in Asch’s conformity studies – the IB will not count such studies as relevant. Instead, consider studies such as Antonova et al’s (2012) use of the drug scopolamine (an antagonist that blocks ACh) and other similar drug studies.
- Continue reading more on this topic by taking the Paper 3 Research Methods course.