Ethics – Is it just common sense?

I know this week we are supposed to write about qualitative and quantitative methods, however I have already written one about that so decided to choose the controversial subject of ethics in research.

The term ethics often invokes assumptions about strict rules and regulations governing various practices and procedures. Most of us develop knowledge of right and wrong in childhood and so have a basic understanding of ethics. For example, young children know it is wrong to hurt someone else, so surely a lot of the time ethics are just common sense? Am I right?

The vast numbers of ethical disagreements that we hear of suggest that ethics may not be just common sense. Consider: Is it ethical to test cosmetics on animals? How about life saving drugs? Ethical debates are around us every day and often we can work out for ourselves if something is ethical or not. However if we take psychology as an example, would it be acceptable to do as we pleased within research and clinical settings? When someone else’s mental or physical state is our responsibility we need guidelines to follow to ensure their safety.

The definition of ethics according to the British Psychological Society is that it is “the science of morals or rules of behaviour”* suggesting that ethics are a vital part of studying behaviour. However, I am now going to examine whether the ethical guidelines are as important as they are made out to be. One of the main issues with the strict guidelines of the BPS governing psychological research is that it is almost impossible to stick to every single rule without diminishing the findings of an experiment. As I’m sure everyone knows, these are the key aspects of ethical guidelines:

  • Deception
  • Informed consent
  • Protection from physical and/or psychological harm
  • The right to withdraw
  • Confidentiality
  • Debriefing

I am going to talk briefly about each of these giving several examples of experiments considered to be highly unethical by today’s standards. So, firstly, is it ethical to deceive participants?  Crutchfield (1955)** conducted a study in which participants were sat in a cubicle and viewed questions that appeared on a screen in front of them. In the corner of the screen the (made up) answers of other participants. The conformity of the participants was then measured by the number of times the individual would conform to the wrong answers in the corner of the screen. In this study Crutchfield deceived participants by making them believe that they were in an experiment with other participants, and similarly they believed they were just answering a questionnaire. If the participants had been told that the experimenter was studying whether they would to conform to the group norm then they would almost certainly have changed their behaviour, thus decreasing the validity and reliability of the findings. And anyways, it wouldn’t affect the participants greatly by being deceived as long as they were debriefed at the end of the study.

            Researchers should ensure that participants can give informed consent. However, fully informing participant of the aims of the experiment is surely going to affect the results. As a result the statistical findings are going to rendered almost useless. But, fully informing participants does not necessarily mean the study is going to be ethical. Zimbardo (1971)*** did gain fully informed consent from his participants, however they were still exposed to potentially damaging conditions even though they agreed to participate. Can we really consider this ethical just because consent was gained? And what about making students participate in psychology studies to gain course credits? Is this ethical? Well technically not as it involves some coercion.

            Perhaps one of the most important ethical guidelines is that of protection from both physical and psychological harm. BPS guidelines suggest that participants should not be exposed to any more risk than they would be in everyday life. For example, Milgram (1963)# conducted perhaps one of the most infamously unethical studies of all time (rated in the top 10 unethical studies##).  Naive participants believed that they were administering electric shocks to a “learner” each time a question was answered incorrectly. The aim was to see how far participants were willing to go to obey an authority figure.

            The Milgram obedience study raised a lot of ethical issues. Firstly, participants could not give informed consent as they were not made fully aware of what the experiment would involve. Participants were also exposed to a potentially harmful situation as it has been reported that several participants had seizures and some were extremely upset by their actions. However, statistically only 1.3% of participants wished they had not participated in the study. A small number in the scheme of things, considering this is such a vital piece of research.

As this blog is getting pretty long now I’ll quickly talk about the right to withdraw and debriefing participants. All participants should have the right to withdraw from an experiment and also to have their data removed from analysis. Although in the case of Milgram’s study, participants were free to leave as and when they pleased, it was made difficult for them and so many believed that they had to stay. Is this unethical? Well, yes. The participants should have been made fully aware of their right to leave.

And finally, debriefing participants is considered to be a vital part of experiments. It is almost used as a way of getting around not gaining fully informed consent from participants. For example, if the researcher tells the participant the aims of the study in the debrief at the end then it avoids distorting results and also gives them the chance to have their data removed from analysis if they did not feel comfortable with it being used for a certain purpose.

By today’s standards studies such as Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s would be considered highly unethical by today’s standards, however BPS approved guidelines were not introduced until 1985 and therefore these studies did not break any rules at the time… Other than that of common sense. Obviously, when conducting a study it is important to remember that you are responsible for your participants, anyone with an ounce of common sense should be able to work out if something is going to be particularly damaging to the mental health of another. But then again, something that one person considers harmful may seem trivial to someone else.

In my opinion, the ethical guidelines are a good from the view of the participant but can greatly hinder researchers. If all ethical guidelines were followed down to the letter then studying behaviour would be almost impossible. We should always aim to protect participants from harm, however is gaining informed consent from participants that important if they’re going to be debriefed at the end of the study?








4 thoughts on “Ethics – Is it just common sense?

  1. psud6e says:

    Nice blog – well done! I like how you’ve covered the main points of ethics, using famous examples for each. I’d like to talk more about the point you raised about coercion, and whether it is ethical for students to be ‘paid’ with course credits for their participation. I agree with that it’s coercion to a mild degree, yet I don’t think it’s unethical. Yes, I agree that we have to take part in studies in order to gain credits for our degree, yet no-one is physically taking us to the studies to take part in them. If we don’t wish to, we could quite easily not go to any studies and still get a good grade from the module. In a way, us participating in studies guarantees participants for studies. As a student, I agree, it isn’t the most favourable of things to do, getting up early and going to a mundane reaction time experiment for an hour, and only to gain 2 credits, yet we also have to look at this on the other side. What about the researchers themselves? They need participants, and if we go on to do research, we will need participants. However we may feel about doing compulsory studies, we are aiding research and helping ourselves if we choose research as a future career.

    I’d also like to talk about the point you make about participant’s rights to withdraw. Ethically, researchers have to make it known to participants that they can withdraw, but just because we know this, will we withdraw if we want to? A good example of this is in the Stanford Prison Experiment, where the participants all knew they could withdraw at any time, yet within the experiment, the individuals got so obsessed with their roles that the ‘prisoners’ were planning a breakout from the experimental prison. The same goes for in studies. We all know we can leave at any time and still get credits for it, but we don’t. Maybe we’re staying and completing the studies out of the kindness of our own hearts, giving the researcher some data, or maybe it’s because we’re English (Welsh), and too embarrassed or shy to withdraw. It takes a certain person to say ‘I don’t want to take part any more’, and the majority of us aren’t this person, so the chances are we’ll stay to the end of a study whether we enjoy it or not!

    • anthonyshock says:

      I agree with you about SONA, I think it’s a bit of a tricky deed and it probably even borders on blackmail! Yes, we have the choice to participate, but making our choice to avoid participation results in a loss, which is considered harm. Could this be a breach of ethics? It pretty much seems like it to me!

      About the right to withdraw, there was some interesting research into this behaviour, where participants were given copious amounts of tedious maths questions, with no purpose, and had to do it over 3 hours! Apparently nobody dropped out, even though they stated in a questionnaire that they were extremely distressed at how boring the task was. Perhaps it’s just British manners and us wanting to avoid causing distress!

  2. Hannah says:

    I agree that although ethics are vital in all areas of research they can actually be quite annoying and prevent very interesting research from being carried out. Although I think that studies into obedience, such as Milgram’s, where unethical, I would actually be quite interested to see if obedience would still be as high in today’s society. Now obviously that is going to go against all ethics but if a suitable debrief was used, it may be possible to get around it as I feel that debriefs are just used so that researchers can put the participants through slightly unethical things and then just debrief them explaining why and telling them that they may withdraw their results and that makes it ok.

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