Should all psychological experiments be ethical?

Psychology is very different to most other subject areas because its subject matter is entirely human or animal. This means that practically all of the research involves living things that can be caused physical or psychological harm. Ethics is split into three distinct areas. This aims at protecting: the individual from physical/psychological harm, the wider social group from harm or prejudice and animals from abuse whilst being used in psychological experiments.

 Guidelines and codes of conduct have been set up so that experiments are ethical. The British Psychological Society (BPS) and the American Psychological Association (APA) were set up. They both produce codes of conduct for both experimentation and for clinical practice. However a code also exists for the protection of animals during psychological experiments.

Some animal experiments have gone way beyond the realms of ethics. The monkey drug trials are an example of this.  A large group of monkeys were trained to inject themselves with an assortment of drugs, including morphine, alcohol, codeine, cocaine, and amphetamines. Once the animals were capable of self-injecting, they were left to their own devices with a large supply of each drug. The animals were so disturbed that some tried so hard to escape that they broke their arms in the process and many of the monkeys dies. The point of the experiment was to understand the effects of drug use and addiction, but I think that most ethical people would know not to treat animals in such an appalling way.

For it to be ethical psychological research has to consider the wider community. Milgram’s experiment showed deception in a lab setting. At the start of the experiment they were introduced to another participant, which was actually a confederate of Milgram.  There were two roles of either a learner or the teacher. The learner was strapped to a chair and tested on pairs of words. The teacher was told to give an electric shock every time the learner made a mistake, increasing the level of shock each time. There were 30 switches on the shock generator marked from 15 volts to 450 volts. The learner gave mainly wrong answers (on purpose) and for each of these the teacher gave him an electric shock. When the teacher refused to administer a shock and turned to the experimenter for guidance, he was given the standard order to continue giving the shocks. I think this study is unethical but deceiving the participants was needed as the study would have otherwise not have worked. If the wellbeing of the participants is being ignored then how can the study be considered as ethical?

Some research is discriminating against different races or different ethnic groups, for example studies on peoples IQ. I think that the outcomes of some research can be used to manipulate people’s behaviour and Skinner’s work on behaviour shaping could be abused and the idea of training or conditioning people to do certain actions is not ethical and takes away peoples free will.

I think that all psychological experiments should evaluate all the ethics before carrying out a study. If it puts a person in serious harm then I don’t think it should be allowed as I would consider that unethical.









Posted on October 7, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Your question title is “should all psychological experiments be ethical” however, I would argue that no psychological experiment is ethical. Even the most simple of studies can be considered to be unethical. For example, in a naturalist observation participants are often unaware that they are being studied. This can be consider to have a lack of informed consent and therefore unethical. Also a questionnaire may include a question deemed embarrassing or provoke uncomfortable memories for the individual and therefore be unethical as the cause harm to the participant. It is impossible to conduct a completely ethical study however, I feel researchers should try and make it as ethical as possible.

  2. I think that to an extent it is acceptable for psychological experiments to break the rules of ethics. For instance, rules surrounding deception and informed consent may be acceptable in certain circumstances because if they participant were not deceived or were given informed consent then it may cause the hawthorn effect or participant bias to occur, thus causing the results to lack validity.
    Also, if minor ethical boundaries are broken, like those I mentioned, I feel that it can be justified if the experimenter makes sure that they effectively debrief the participant after they have conducted the study to ensure that no harm has been caused, and if harm has been caused they take the appropriate measure to reduce this.
    However, I agree that researchers should aim to make their studies as ethical as possible and should not put participants at the risk of serious harm.

  3. Dear Lovely Vicky. At some of the experiments, they decieved participants from the true aim in order to decrease the chance of them being biased. However, it may be possible participants may be biased this way as they want to try to find the true aim. The most important factor is still based on the well being of the participants, and the safety of the researcher. Psychological Harm and Phyical Harm should never ever to be inflicted towards participants. If the procedure invovles with deceiving the Pts, informed consent is needed. After all the procedures, it is important that Pts go through debriefing, with explaination on the true aim and where they may have been deceived, and ensure they left the experiment in a good mental/physical state. I do not think it is possible to have a complete ethincal experiment. However, not just considering the reliablity and the validity of the data, it is important that procedures must minimise the potential threat towards the Pts, but also good debrief.

    p.s. Good Blog Vicky, nice examples, and feel better soon 🙂 x

  5. To an extent Psychological studies should be able to break certain ethical guidelines because Psychologists use deception to get rid of the possibility of demand characteristics to make the study more valid and it is not always possible to gain full informed consent because Psychologists have to use naturalistic observations witihin their research to be able to generalise the findings to real life, in these types of studies it is not always possible to gain full informed consent.
    Also MIlgrams study can be argued as more ethical because when asked the participants said they are glad they took part in the study because the study taught them valuable lessons about themselves and others. This can be argued as more ethically sound because this therefore means that no long term Psychological harm or stress was caused 🙂

  6. I think that it can be acceptable for psychology to break the rules of eithics, however it depends on how severley they are broken. In some ways I think every psychological experiment violates ethical rules, however if the researcher does everything they can to protect participants from harm and obviously depending on the type of experiment I think that minor violations can sometimes not be helped, however research like Milgram’s conducted put participants under severe emotional stress and could be seen as unethical and like you said research that leads to biased or harmful results can too be considered unethical, which is why there are now stricter ethical guidelines today. This blog is really easy to understand and well written 🙂

  7. I would argue that the importance of avoiding psychological harm during research is possibly over-emphasised. Whilst it would be unethical to cause harm to a participant which could be avoided without compromise to the validity of the experiment, unavoidable psychological harm should possibly not be a strong enough reason to deny permission for an experiment to take place.
    Instead, a greater emphasis should be placed on ethics post-experiment. Milgram’s obedience study is infamous for its supposed lack of ethics, due to the psychological harm caused to the participants. However, it is worth noting that this harm was entirely transient: participants were thoroughly debriefed an offered counselling after the experiment; as such, none suffered permanent psychological harm.
    When assessing the ethics of an experiment, perhaps it is fair to say that the actual experiment should not be compromised in order to become more ethical. Instead, it is the care offered to participants afterwards which is important.

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