Psychological research, obedience and ethics
Psychological research, obedience and ethics

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Psychological research, obedience and ethics

Task 1: Evaluating the ethics of research

Guidelines

  1. The ‘smallest number of animals sufficient to accomplish the research goals’ should be used in any study.
  2. The costs and benefits of any study must be carefully evaluated.
  3. The welfare of the animal must be taken into account and researchers must ‘seek to minimise any pain, suffering or distress that might arise’ from any experiment.
  4. Use alternatives to animal research whenever possible, including data collected by other researchers, lower species (leeches, cell cultures, etc.) or increasingly, computer simulations.

Based on the guidelines on animal research, do you think an ethics committee would approve each of the following studies?

Question 1

1. A researcher at a UK university is applying for a licence to replicate Harlow’s studies of deprivation. Infant monkeys would be raised in isolation with different types of ‘surrogate mother’ (inanimate objects that were either cloth-covered or made of wire with a milk bottle attached).

Do you think an ethics committee would give this study approval?

a. 

Yes


b. 

No


The correct answer is b.

Discussion

An ethics committee, and the Home Office, would probably not give approval for this study to be carried out. Not only does it raise issues about animal welfare and deprivation, but Harlow has already carried out this research, and it is highly unlikely that simply repeating the study would be considered a benefit great enough to outweigh the cost to the animals involved.

Question 2

2. A researcher in a UK animal research laboratory is interested in addiction. He is proposing a study in which a small radio receiver would be implanted into the brains of seventy-five rhesus monkeys. These receivers would allow the researcher to activate areas of the brain thought to be associated with ‘pleasure’. The study would help shed light on brain mechanisms involved in addiction.

Do you think an ethics committee would give this study approval?

a. 

Yes


b. 

No


The correct answer is b.

Discussion

Several issues would need to be considered here. One is the number of monkeys involved. Ethics committees must ensure that the smallest number needed is actually used in the study. It is unlikely that as many as seventy-five monkeys would be absolutely necessary, so the researcher would probably be asked to make a very strong case, or reduce the number. Also, the ethics committee would want to hear what would happen to the monkeys after the experiment. Would they be able to live normally after the experiment is over?

Question 3

3. A laboratory has been contracted by the Ministry of Defence to evaluate whether pigeons could be used in a guided missile to direct it towards an enemy aircraft in order to destroy it. The research would involve three pigeons being trained in a Skinner box to peck at targets on a radar screen.

Do you think an ethics committee would give this study approval?

a. 

Yes


b. 

No


The correct answer is a.

Discussion

Believe it or not, a study such as this, which drew on the ideas of B.F. Skinner, was carried out in the USA during the Second World War, as part of the so-called ‘Project Orcon’ or ‘Pigeon Project’. In this study there are no obvious ethical concerns (except for the more general issues of animal welfare), given that the pigeons’ ability to guide a missile is simply being evaluated, and a standard Skinner-box procedure is being proposed. So the project would probably receive ethical clearance, as the committee are likely to consider it to involve a discrimination learning task using specific stimuli (target on a radar screen), and there are no obvious animal welfare issues involved. (The pigeons would not actually be used in the attacks, or at least that is not what this project is about.)

Question 4

4. A researcher has applied for permission to carry out an observational study in the Kalahari Desert of communication among pied babblers (wild birds) and with other species. The study would involve two researchers wearing camouflage hiding in the bushes, observing the behaviour of the pied babblers and recording their mating calls.

Do you think an ethics committee would give this study approval?

a. 

Yes


b. 

No


The correct answer is a.

Discussion

Research such as this is being done regularly around the world. While most of the ethical guidance that you have learned about so far in this activity has referred to laboratory work, the BPS also regulates observational work in the animals’ natural habitats. Researchers would be asked by the committee to follow careful protocols to ensure that disruption to animals’ lives is kept to a minimum. Disruption might have a detrimental effect not only on the birds’ lives, but might also impact on the inferences that can be drawn from the study. This is because the observed behaviour might be a reaction to intrusion by researchers, rather than something that occurs naturally, in the wild.

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