Psychology in the 21st century
Psychology in the 21st century

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Psychology in the 21st century

3.7 Ethical considerations

Since psychological research is mostly done on people and animals, it is often the case that the observations or experimental interventions that a psychologist might want to make have the potential to harm participants and hence raise ethical issues. Furthermore, consequences that might not be directly undesirable for the participants might raise more general ethical principles to do with moral standards and values. Psychologists have increasingly become aware of ethical issues and recognised that psychological research has sometimes been ethically questionable.

An example from the middle of the last century illustrates this. Between 1959 and 1962 Professor Henry Murray, a personality theorist, carried out a series of experiments on 22 undergraduate men at Harvard University in the USA. These were designed to measure how people respond to stressful interpersonal confrontations during mock interrogations. The aim appears to have been to understand which types of men were likely to be able to withstand brainwashing and interrogation in situations of war. Murray had been engaged in work relevant to this issue during the Second World War. Participants were volunteers who were given a small fee and simply asked if they would be willing to contribute to the solution of ‘certain psychological problems’. They were placed in brilliantly lit rooms, filmed through a hole in the wall, and were connected to electrodes that recorded their heart and respiratory rates. While the students had been told that they would be debating their views with another undergraduate, they were actually faced with an older, more sophisticated opponent who belittled their values, making the students feel humiliated and helpless, and rousing them to a great deal of anger. After spending approximately 200 hours as research participants, they were still not clear what the research was about. Chase (2000) suggests that even 25 years later some of the participants recalled how unpleasant was the whole experience. More seriously, however, one of the participants in these experiments was Theodore Kaczynski, who became a student at Harvard in the spring of 1958, when he was only 15 years old. He was later to be nicknamed ‘the Unabomber’ for mailing or delivering 16 parcel bombs to scientists, academics and others over a 17-year period, killing three and injuring 23. Obviously, it is not possible to say what effect, if any, taking part in Murray's study had on Kaczynski. However, one of his major resentments against scientists was because he felt that they were trying to develop techniques for controlling people's behaviour.

It is not clear whether or not Murray's research has been applied to the control of behaviour by any governments. However, in the 1970s, Tim Shallice (an influential British cognitive psychologist) argued that psychological research on sensory deprivation has been used by governments (including the British government in Northern Ireland) to devise successful methods of preparing prisoners for interrogation. In sensory deprivation experiments, psychologists study the effects of depriving people of sensation by, for example, confining them in isolation in a bed or suspended in a warm water tank. Participants may be kept in the dark or in a room with either no sound or constant ‘white noise’ – which sounds rather like a radio turned on, but not tuned into any station. Most participants become anxious and disoriented after between 3.5 and 10 hours in these conditions, with some reporting nightmares afterwards. According to Shallice, such research proliferated because it has been funded by the military. Shallice (1972, p.385) argues that there should be ‘more stringent editorial control of papers on sensory deprivation in order to reduce the chances’ of their being misused to break the resistance of prisoners. There have, therefore, been areas of psychological research whose application raises difficult ethical issues.

In the Murray study, and arguably in sensory deprivation experiments, the potential psychological benefits of the study are far from clear. However, ethical concerns have been raised about two rather more famous US experiments, the findings of which many psychologists see as invaluable. In the 1970s, Zimbardo set up a mock prison in his psychology department. He then randomly assigned Stanford student volunteers to ‘guard’ or ‘prisoner’ status. In an experiment designed to last two weeks, the ‘guards’ became so harsh and the ‘prisoners’ so distressed that the experiment was terminated after six days. Follow-ups over several years showed no apparent long-term ill effects of the experiment (Zimbardo et al., 1995). Although the experiment is often praised for its dramatic demonstration of how easily people could fall into ‘bad gaoler’ or ‘victim prisoner’ roles in socially produced situations, the question of whether it is ethically defensible to put people into such situations is still hotly debated. For example, would it be possible to arrive at these findings in other ways?

Figure 7
Figure 7 Stanford prison experiment: dejected ‘prisoner’

Similarly, Milgram's classic 1963 experiment, on the relationship between obedience to authority and aggression, continues to stimulate ethical debate. His study was an attempt to research a complex social behaviour, compliance with orders to be aggressive to another person, by taking it out of a real-life context and bringing it into the psychological laboratory. This is an example of research informed by a concern to understand the atrocities committed during the Second World War. Participants were told that this was an experiment to test the effect of punishment on learning. The person to whom they believed they were administering shocks was actually Milgram's confederate who pretended that he was being shocked. The real participants (who were non-student men) were ‘instructed to “move one level higher on the shock generator each time the learner gives a wrong answer”’ (Milgram, 1974, pp. 20–1). Of the 40 participants, 26 continued obeying the orders of the experimenter to the point where they had administered what they believed were potentially fatal shocks (by pushing two switches labelled ‘XXX’ on the control panel which were beyond the switch labelled ‘Danger: Severe Shock’). The participants were told afterwards, in what is known as a debriefing session, that they had not inflicted any pain, but many of them, after realising the implications of what they had been doing, became extremely upset. However, Milgram (1974) sent a follow-up questionnaire to his entire sample and 92 per cent of them returned it. Only 1 per cent of them reported that they were sorry to have participated in the study.

Figure 8
Figure 8 Stanley Milgram, 1933–1984

The ethical dilemma raised by this study concerns whether its potential benefit in helping us to understand how human beings can commit atrocities against each other outweighs the stress and pain it may have caused. Milgram believed that the participants in his series of experiments demonstrated a parallel psychological process to Nazi guards’ obedience to authority in Germany in the Second World War. He considered that his studies were ‘principally concerned with the ordinary and routine destruction carried out by everyday people following orders’ (Milgram, 1974, p. 178).

The dramatic findings from both Zimbardo's and Milgram's studies suggest that it is all too easy for negative aspects of human behaviour to be demonstrated. However, they also show the force of the experimental setting and the power of authoritative researchers to control the behaviour of participants. The experiments brought to light very important issues about the ethics of psychological studies. They raise the major, and difficult, issue of whether the findings of studies justify the possible ill effects which they produce on participants.

Milgram's study informed decisions by both the American Psychological Association and the British Psychological Society to make ethics central to their prescriptions about research. In Britain there was a further impetus in the late 1970s. A psychology department was prosecuted for allowing a postgraduate student to observe the predatory behaviour of cats on canaries when the department had never had a licence to keep canaries for research purposes. There is no doubt that psychological research can lead to harmful effects on humans and animals. Ethical debates, the explicit consideration of the ethics of each research project and the provision of ethical guidelines are the ways in which psychologists attempt to address these problems. The move in the late 1990s by the British Psychological Society (and a little earlier by the American Psychological Association) to change the term used for those who take part in studies from ‘subjects’ to ‘participants’ reflects a greater concern for ethics in terms of respect of individuals.

The British Psychological Society (BPS), along with psychological societies around the world, has produced ethical guidelines for the conduct of research. Any psychologist who breaks these guidelines is subject to disciplinary action. Box 2 provides an extract adapted from a recent version of these BPS ethical principles for work with human participants. The British Psychological Society and The Experimental Psychology Society have together agreed guidelines for research with animals. It is usual practice now for all psychological research to require ethical approval from an appropriate group.

Box 2: BPS Code of Ethics and Conduct

The British Psychological Society (BPS) introduced an amended version of the Code of Ethics and Conduct on 31 March 2006. Research is one of the areas of psychological work that generates many concerns and complaints to the BPS. These include complaints about psychologists falsifying data, failing to obtain consent, plagiarism or failing to acknowledge another's work or contribution. The principles below are designed to help psychologists avoid problems such as these. They are not all of the principles provided in the much longer BPS Code of Ethics and Conduct, but a subset which highlights the kinds of issues that need to be considered when conducting psychological research. As the full BPS Code of Ethics and Conduct applies to psychology students as well as to professional psychologists, the complete document is available online via the BPS website. This box first summarises the ethical principles on which the code is based, and then focuses particularly on ethical responsibilities to do with research. Please note that while the focus here is on ethical conduct with research participants, the code covers clients who use psychological services as well as research participants and seeks to promote ethical behaviour, attitudes and judgements on the part of psychologists, including psychology students.

The BPS Code of Ethics and Conduct is based on four ethical principles, which set out the main responsibilities of psychologists. These are: respect; competence; responsibility and integrity:

1 Ethical principle: respect

Psychologists should ‘respect individual, cultural and role differences, including (but not exclusively) those involving age, disability, education, ethnicity, gender, language, national origin, race, religion, sexual orientation, marital or family status and socio-economic status’ (guideline 1.1 (i), page 10 of the Code). Respect also entails treating people fairly, keeping appropriate records, obtaining the consent of research participants and maintaining their confidentiality, including storing information about them in ways that are not likely to lead to accidental disclosure.

2 Ethical principle: competence

Psychologists must recognise the limits of their knowledge, skill, training, education, and experience and work within them. In order to do this, they should develop and maintain a comprehensive awareness of professional ethics, including familiarity with the Code. They should also be able to justify their actions on ethical grounds.

3 Ethical principle: responsibility

Psychologists should avoid harming research participants and should take care to ensure that they themselves come to no harm in conducting their research. They should also avoid personal and professional misconduct that might bring the reputation of the profession (or the university) into disrepute. Psychologists take responsibility not only for their own actions, but also for the maintenance of ethical standards amongst colleagues, students, employees, etc.

4 Ethical principle: integrity

Psychologists should strive to be fair, accurate and honest and maintain integrity in all of their professional dealings. Psychologists should be ‘honest and accurate in representing their professional affiliations and qualifications, including such matters as knowledge, skill, training, education, and experience’ (guideline 4.1 (i), page 20 of the Code).

Protection of research participants

The principles listed next have been selected from the BPS Code of Ethics and Conduct (as written there or in slightly edited form) and are based on the ethical principles of respect and responsibility. We have organized these into four different sections, each of which relate to the protection of research participants.

Psychologists should:

Recruitment of research participants

  • (i) Consider all research from the standpoint of research participants, for the purpose of eliminating potential risks to psychological well-being, physical health, personal values, or dignity (guideline 3.3 (i), page 18 of the Code).

  • (ii) Undertake such consideration with due concern for the potential effects of, for example, age, disability, education, ethnicity, gender, language, national origin, race, religion, marital or family status, sexual orientation, seeking consultation as needed from those knowledgeable about such effects (guideline 3.3 (ii), page 18 of the Code).

  • (iii) Refrain from using financial compensation or other inducements for research participants to risk harm beyond that which they face in their normal lifestyles (guideline 3.3 (iv), page 18 of the Code).

Informed consent

  • (iv) Ensure that research participants, particularly children and vulnerable adults, are given ample opportunity to understand the nature, purpose, and anticipated consequences of research participation, so that they may give informed consent to the extent that their capabilities allow. The consent of those in positions of responsibility for children and vulnerable adults will also have to be sought (guideline 1.3 )i), page 12 of the Code).

  • (v) Seek to obtain the informed consent of all research participants to whom research participation is offered (guideline 1.3 (ii), page 12 of the Code).

  • (vi) Keep adequate records of when, how and from whom consent was obtained (guideline 1.3 (iii), page 12 of the Code).

Participant control over participation

  • (vii) Ensure from the first contact that research participants are aware of their right to withdraw from research participation at any time (adapted from guideline 1.4 (ii), page 14 of the Code).

  • (viii) Comply with requests by research participants who are withdrawing from research participation that any data by which they might be personally identified, including recordings, be destroyed (guideline 1.4 (iii), page 14 of the Code).

  • (ix) Inform research participants from the first contact that they may decline to answer any questions put to them (adapted from guideline 3.3 (vii), page 18 of the Code).

  • (x) Exercise particular caution when responding to requests for advice from research participants concerning psychological or other issues. If it seems appropriate, suggest that they seek professional help (adapted from guideline 3.3 (ix), page 19 of the Code).

  • (xi) Unless informed consent has been obtained, restrict research based upon observations of public behaviour to those situations in which persons being studied would reasonably expect to be observed by strangers, with reference to local cultural values and to the privacy of persons who, even while in a public space, may believe they are unobserved (guideline 1.3 (ix), page 13 of the Code).

Debriefing of research participants

  • (xii) Debrief research participants at the conclusion of their participation, in order to inform them of the nature of the research, to identify any unforeseen harm, discomfort, or misconceptions, and in order to arrange for assistance as needed (guideline 3.4 (i), page 19 of the Code).

  • (xiii) Take particular care when discussing outcomes with research participants, as seemingly evaluative statements may carry unintended weight (guideline 3.4 (ii), page 19 of the Code).

Source: adapted from The British Psychological Society, 2006

It is important to note that there are likely to be other codes, statutes and ethical guidelines that are relevant in certain contexts. This may include legislation, university ethical procedures, education authorities and medical boards. It is now common for those working with children to have to obtain CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) clearance.

Psychology has changed since the 1960s and 1970s when Murray, Milgram and Zimbardo conducted their studies. Today, however, psychologists are still faced with ethical issues, many of which are subtle and difficult to foresee.

For example, in a research project on mothering, one of the authors of this course conducted an interview where the mother's husband was present. While this was not ideal because the interview was meant to be only with mothers, it was very difficult to obtain interviews in this study and so the researcher felt that every opportunity had to be seized. The session seemed to go very well and the mother appeared frank and forthcoming. However, at the next interview with the mother, a year later, the husband put on his coat as soon as the researcher appeared. When the mother asked where he was going, he explained that he was not going to stay to hear her ‘winding him up again’. The previous interview had clearly raised issues for their relationship. With hindsight, it may have been ethically preferable for the researcher not to have done the interview with the father present – even though the mother had been very keen to continue. Or, rather than only concentrating on the mother, it may have been better to include the father in the interview since he was there. However, any interview can raise unanticipated ethical questions since just talking about topics can raise unexpected issues for participants in research.

To take another example, suppose you are doing a non-participant observation of an infant with his/her mother, in a naturalistic setting (the home) where the older sibling is also in the room, playing. What happens if the mother puts the infant in the crib and then goes into the kitchen but the older child immediately comes over and rocks the crib so violently that the baby is in danger of falling out? What do you do? It would be usual to intervene to avoid harm to the baby and probably that is what you would do. But then you would no longer be a non-participant observer – you would have entered the action and would be affecting what you were supposed to be recording. This could constitute an ethical dilemma. Alternatively, what should a researcher observing a family do if, having promised confidentiality to a mother, she sees a child obviously drunk and carrying a vodka bottle? It is normal good practice, in research and therapy, to assure the participants or clients of confidentiality, but with the explicit proviso that the researcher or therapist has a duty of care if the participants or clients are seen to be in danger of serious harm or harming others.

The above examples may seem simple in that they were not directly caused by the psychologist but were problems that arose within the research setting. (Note, however, that the mother in the infant observation example may have left the older child with the infant only because there was another adult in the room, who, the mother presumed, would intervene if necessary.) But these examples also illustrate that psychologists have to consider ethics when they make research choices about what to do, how to do it and how to analyse it. In other words, psychologists face ethical dilemmas in all aspects of how they conduct their research. For example, psychologists’ approach to working with animals has changed enormously; when the authors of this chapter were students it was not uncommon for undergraduates to do research with animals. While this has become generally unacceptable, and many psychology departments no longer have animal laboratories, animals are still used for some research on learning and on brain functioning – although advances in neural imaging and computer modelling of brain functioning have made the use of animals in psychological experiments much less necessary. When animals are used now, ethical guidelines require that psychologists demonstrate that they could not do the same research without using animals and that the animals used are not subjected to any more pain or discomfort than is absolutely necessary. However, some people undoubtedly find any use of animals in psychological research unacceptable.

The question of deception often raises ethical dilemmas. Yet, it is not always ethically indefensible for psychologists to deceive the participants in their studies (as is clear from the British Psychological Society ethical guidelines). For example, it is common for memory researchers not to tell their participants in advance what they will be expected to remember during the tasks they are given or even that they are taking part in a memory experiment. This is because telling participants what they will be asked to remember is likely to change the way they approach tasks and, since this minor deception does not result in harm, psychologists generally consider it acceptable for this form of deception to continue. But memory researchers now consider it ethically important to reveal any deception that has been used to the participants after the study, during a process of debriefing.

Similarly, experimental social psychologists frequently do not tell their participants exactly what is being studied or the basis on which they have been selected. For example, in a well-known experiment, Henri Tajfel and his colleagues (1971) randomly assigned boys to groups. However, they told the boys that they were being divided on the basis of their liking for the paintings of either Klee or Kandinsky, to make the participants think that amongst them there were ‘two sorts of people’. This is not usually considered ethically problematic. However, some social psychological experiments raise potentially more troubling ethical issues. For instance, some psychologists stage minor accidents (such as someone tripping up and falling over in apparent pain) in order to observe helping behaviour. While there may be important benefits from understanding what influences helping behaviour, the psychologists doing the research have to weigh up whether the potential benefits of the study outweigh the distress that may be caused to passers-by. And all psychological research should offer, or be ready to offer, professional support for participants who might become distressed. This also applies to the researchers, who may in some situations require support themselves. It is important that researchers think about, and take care to remain within, their own competence levels, thus not exposing their participants or themselves to situations which they, the researchers, may not be able to deal with.

Activity 3

Look back at the description of the Murray study at the beginning of this section. Using the ethical guidelines presented in Box 2, note down how the Murray study contravenes current ethical principles. Having done this, consider how the interview described in the mothering study above might fail to fit with the guidelines. The fact that this interview situation is not a clear-cut example should help you to see some of the difficulties involved in making ethical decisions in psychological research.

Psychologists have also become increasingly conscious of ethical issues in professional practice. The importance of ethics has been underlined by the large number of psychologists who now work with patients or clients in the helping professions, business settings, forensic psychology or other roles. In the consulting room, patients or clients are often in distressed or in dependent states and are particularly vulnerable. Ethical issues around confidentiality, data protection and the legal status of case notes also now contribute to the level of awareness that professional psychologists need in order to work within their professional guidelines and their national codes of conduct. Since ethics are important to psychology, try to keep the British Psychological Society's ethical principles in mind as you think about the studies you encounter.


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