Psychology Research Ethics
Psychology Research Ethics
By Dr. Saul McLeod, updated 2015
Ethics refers to the correct rules of conduct necessary when carrying out research. We have a moral responsibility to protect research participants from harm.
However important the issue under investigation psychologists need to remember that they have a duty to respect the rights and dignity of research participants. This means that they must abide by certain moral principles and rules of conduct.
In Britain, ethical guidelines for research are published by the British Psychological Society and in America by the American Psychological Association. The purpose of these codes of conduct is to protect research participants, the reputation of psychology, and psychologists themselves.
Ethical Issues in Psychology
Moral issues rarely yield a simple, unambiguous, right or wrong answer. It is therefore often a matter of judgment whether the research is justified or not.
For example, it might be that a study causes psychological or physical discomfort to participants, maybe they suffer pain or perhaps even come to serious harm.
On the other hand, the investigation could lead to discoveries that benefit the participants themselves or even have the potential to increase the sum of human happiness.
Rosenthal and Rosnow (1984) also talk about the potential costs of failing to carry out certain research. Who is to weigh up these costs and benefits? Who is to judge whether the ends justify the means?
Finally, if you are ever in doubt as to whether research is ethical or not it is worthwhile remembering that if there is a conflict of interest between the participants and the researcher it is the interests of the subjects that should take priority.
Studies must now undergo an extensive review by an institutional review board (US) or ethics committee (UK) before they are implemented. All UK research requires ethical approval by one or more of the following:
Committees review proposals assess if the potential benefits of the research are justifiable in the light of the possible risk of physical or psychological harm.These committees may request researchers make changes to the study's design or procedure, or in extreme cases deny approval of the study altogether.
The British Psychological Society (BPS) and American Psychological Association (APA) have both issued a code of ethics in psychology that provides guidelines for the conduct of research. Some of the more important ethical issues are as follows:
Whenever possible investigators should obtain the consent of participants. In practice, this means it is not sufficient to simply get potential participants to say Yes.
They also need to know what it is that they are agreeing to. In other words, the psychologist should, so far as is practicable explain what is involved in advance and obtain the informed consent of participants.
However, it is not always possible to gain informed consent. Where it is impossible for the researcher to ask the actual participants, a similar group of people can be asked how they would feel about taking part.
If they think it would be OK then it can be assumed that the real participants will also find it acceptable. This is known as presumptive consent.
However, a problem with this method is that there might there be a mismatch between how people think they would feel/behave and how they actually feel and behave during a study?
In order that consent be informed, consent forms may need to be accompanied by an information sheet for participants setting out information about the proposed study (in lay terms) along with details about the investigators and how they can be contacted.
Participants must be given information relating to: