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Psychology Research Ethics

published, 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.

Moral issues rarely yield a simple, unambiguous, right or wrong answer. It is therefore often a matter of judgement 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:

(a) Department Ethics Committee (DEC): for most routine research.

(b) Institutional Ethics Committee (IEC): for non routine research.

(c) External Ethics Committee (EEC): for research that is externally regulated (e.g. NHS research).

Committees review proposals to assess if the potential benefits of the research are justifiable in the light of 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:


Informed Consent

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.

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. An adult (18ys +) capable of giving permission to participate in a study can provide consent. Parents/legal guardians of minors can also provide consent to allow their children to participate in a study.

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:

  • Statement that participation is voluntary and that refusal to participate will not result in any consequences or any loss of benefits that the person is otherwise entitled to receive.
  • Purpose of the research.
  • All foreseeable risks and discomforts to the participant (if there are any). These include not only physical injury but also possible psychological.
  • Procedures involved in the research.
  • 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.
  • Subjects' right to confidentiality and the right to withdraw from the study at any time without any consequences.

  • Debrief

    After the research is over the participant should be able to discuss the procedure and the findings with the psychologist.   They must be given a general idea of what the researcher was investigating and why, and their part in the research should be explained.

    Participants 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.

    Debriefing should take place as soon as possible and be as full as possible; experimenters should take reasonable steps to ensure that participants understand debriefing.

    “The purpose of debriefing is to remove any misconceptions and anxieties that the participants have about the research and to leave them with a sense of dignity, knowledge, and a perception of time not wasted” (Harris, 1998).

    The aim of the debriefing is not just to provide information, but to help the participant leave the experimental situation in a similar frame of mind as when he/she entered it (Aronson, 1988).


    Protection of Participants