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

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The ethics of animal research

In this course you were introduced to a number of ethics principles that apply to research on human participants. These include informed consent from participants, ensuring their right to withdraw, protecting their welfare and evaluating the costs and benefits of the study.

Which of these do not apply to animals?

Of course, animals cannot give informed consent, and, given that most are kept in captivity anyway, the ‘right to withdraw’ does not really apply.

However, there are separate ethical guidelines for work with animals, which are also issued by the British Psychological Society.

They include provisions such as:

  • The ‘smallest number of animals sufficient to accomplish the research goals’ should be used in any study.
  • The costs and benefits of any study must be carefully evaluated.
  • 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.
  • Researchers should use alternatives to animal research whenever possible, including data collected by other researchers, lower species (leeches, cell cultures, etc.) or, increasingly, computer simulations.

What emerges from these studies are the ‘3 Rs’ of animal research. These are to:

  • refine procedures to minimise suffering
  • reduce the number of individual animals used
  • replace animals with other alternatives.

These guidelines are interpreted and applied by ethics committees of research institutions and other bodies (including the Home Office) that grant special licences for keeping animals and using them in research.