Psychological Research Methods

Ethical Issues in Research

Ethics Violations

Following historical abuses of research participants, researchers must adhere to modern ethical guidelines when working with human and animal participants.
It is important for psychology researchers to uphold research ethics to protect the safety and comfort of their participants. Ethical guidelines when working with humans include obtaining informed consent from participants (or from their guardian if participants are younger than 18 or unable to consent), avoiding harm to participants, minimizing use of deception, and debriefing participants by explaining the study to them at the end. Research ethics are regulated by federal law and by the ethics code of the American Psychological Association. Ethical guidelines cover everything from protecting personal information from accidental disclosure to the minimum size of enclosures required for working with animals. These safeguards have followed from early medical and psychological studies that put participants at unnecessary risk.

In the past, some researchers put their scientific curiosity ahead of the well-being of the people they were studying. One of the most infamous examples of unethical research in the United States is the "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male." In 1932 the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) began a study to describe the life cycle of syphilis in African American males. This study was unethical in several ways:

  • Participants were not given all the information about the study, including the risks of participating (informed consent).
  • Participants were told they were receiving treatment when in fact they were not (deception).
  • Participants were not given the option to withdraw from the study.
  • Participants were not provided with the cure for syphilis (penicillin) once it was discovered.

Another example of ethical violations in research comes from the Stanford prison study. In this study, American psychologist Philip Zimbardo designed a fake prison in a basement lab at Stanford University to study how people embodied the role of guard or prisoner. Over six days, college students assigned to the role of guard became power-hungry and abusive toward prisoners while college students assigned to the role of prisoner showed signs of stress and depression. Like the Tuskegee study, the Stanford prison experiment was also unethical in several ways:

  • Participants could not provide informed consent as the nature of the study was exploratory.
  • "Prisoners" were "arrested" at their homes by surprise, which violated the signed contract for the study procedure (deception).
  • Participants acting as prisoners were not protected from potential physical or psychological harm.
  • The researcher's own participation as a prison warden in the study promoted demand characteristics from the participants that were potentially harmful.

A third example of ethics violations comes from American social psychologist Stanley Milgram's study on obedience. In that study, participants were told they would be participating in a study on learning and memory. As the "teacher," the participant was told to help the "learner" memorize a list of words by administering an electrical shock following incorrect responses. With each error, the intensity of the shock increased. The participant was situated in front of a control panel for the shock instrument while the "learner" was in another room, out of view of the participant. The "learner" was an actor and was not actually harmed in any way but made sounds in response to the apparent shock as though they were in pain. This study was unethical in several ways:

  • Participants thought they were actually delivering shocks to another person but were not (deception).
  • Participants were not protected from potential psychological harm induced by the study; most were visibly stressed.
  • The researcher insisted that the participant continue administering shocks, even when it was clear they would prefer not to.

Not all forms of deception in research are unethical. Some questions can only be answered if the participant does not know the focus of the study. However, ethics boards must carefully review the research design to insure that the deception is essential to the study and not harmful to the participant. For example, some studies exploring food preferences or amount of food consumed in various settings have been disguised as taste tests.

Protecting Research Participants

Federal regulations require ethics board approval for research studies. Researchers must explain any risks and obtain participants' informed consent.
Many procedures in modern research are aimed at protecting the rights of human and animal participants. The following constitute the foundation of these protections for humans:
  • Researchers must obtain participants’ informed consent to participate in research. Informed consent is a participant’s agreement to participate based on a complete understanding of the procedure, risks, and benefits of a study. It is the researcher's responsibility to provide the full details of the study and ensure the participant's proper understanding of the procedure.
  • Right to withdraw. At any time, a research participant is free to withdraw from a study without penalty.
  • Deception and debriefing. Deception may be used when it is critical to the research but not if it increases any risk to the participants. Following a study involving deception, participants must receive a debriefing—a full explanation of the purpose of the study, including a description of any information withheld.
  • Compensation. Participants may be compensated for their time, but they cannot be coerced into participating by an incentive that greatly outweighs the risk of their participation.
  • Institutional review board (IRB). All human-subjects research must be approved by a committee whose job it is to ensure the research protects the rights and welfare of the participants.
Animal welfare in research is also protected. Similar to the role of the institutional review board, the institutional animal care and use committee must approve all research involving animals after ensuring all procedures protect animals' rights and welfare. All research must limit discomfort or injury to animals, provide medical care for the animals as needed, and provide rationale for why use of animals is necessary for the study.
A medical officer conducts an inspection at a research facility. In research facilities, scientists must provide animals with proper veterinary care, adequate housing, and appropriate nutrition. These measures ensure the animals' comfort and safety during research projects as outlined by the institutional animal care and use committee.
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