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Psychology Research Ethics

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Ethics are very important when carrying out any type of psychological research.

Before we can begin any research method it is vital that we stick to an ethical code of practice, as we will be dealing with people. 

Ethics refers to the correct rules of conduct necessary when carrying out research.  We have a moral responsibility to protect research participants from harm.

The British Psychological Society (BPS) has 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:

Informed Consent

Before the study begins the researcher must outline to the participants what the research is about, and then ask their consent (i.e. permission) to take part.

However, it is not always possible to gain informed consent.  This is acceptable as long as what happens to the participants is something that could easily happen to them in everyday life.  For example, if the research involves observing people in a bus queue, those people may be observed by anyone when they are in the queue.

Participants must be given information relating to:

    • Purpose of the research.

    • Procedures involved in the research.

    • All foreseeable risks and discomforts to the subject. These include not only physical injury but also possible psychological.

    • Benefits of the research to society and possibly to the individual human subject.

    • Length of time the subject is expected to participate.

    • Person to contact for answers to questions or in the event of injury or emergency.

Debrief

Participants must be thoroughly debriefed at the end of the study.  They must be given a general idea of what the researcher was investigating and why, and their part in the research should be explained. They must be told if they have been deceived and given reasons why. They must be asked if they have any questions and those questions should be answered honestly and as fully as possible.

Protection of Participants

Researchers must ensure that those taking part in research will not be caused distress. They must be protected from physical and mental harm. This means you must not embarrass, frighten, offend or harm participants.

Normally, the risk of harm must be no greater than in ordinary life, i.e. participants should not be exposed to risks greater than or additional to those encountered in their normal lifestyles.

Deception

This is where participants are misled or wrongly informed about the aims of the research.  For example, in Milgram’s study of obedience the participants thought they there giving electric shocks to a learner when they answered a question wrong.  In reality no shocks were given and the learners were confederates of Milgram. This is sometimes necessary in order to avoid demand characteristics (i.e. the clues in an experiment which lead participants to think they know what the researcher is looking for).

However, participants must be deceived as little as possible, and any deception must not cause distress.  If you have gained participants’ informed consent by deception then they will have agreed to take part without actually knowing what they were consenting to.  The true nature of the research should be revealed at the earliest possible opportunity, or at least during debriefing.  If the participant is likely to object or be distressed once they discover the true nature of the research at debriefing, then the study is unacceptable.

Objections to deception

  • Violates individual’s right to choose to participate.
  • A questionable basis on which to build a discipline.
  • Leads to distrust of psychology in the community.

Confidentiality

Participants, and the data gained from them must be kept anonymous unless they give their full consent.  No names must be used in a research report.

Withdrawal from an Investigation

From the very start of an investigation, participants must be aware of their right to stop participating in the study.  Even at the end of the study the participant has a final opportunity to withdraw the data they have provided for the research.

How to cite this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2007). Psychology Research Ethics. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/Ethics.html

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