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Ethical considerations in research

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Ethical considerations in research

When it comes to psychology research, it is a subject that investigates serious phenomena. For instance, the investigation of mental illnesses, bullying or crime. Psychology aims to understand the brain and behaviour to help people. Therefore, researchers have an obligation to adhere to ethical guidelines to ensure that their research causes little to no harm to participants. If research is deemed unethical, the study will likely be widely criticised and not accepted by the psychology community.

  • We will begin to look at ethical considerations in research psychology.
  • Then, we will dive into looking at ethical considerations in qualitative research and ethical considerations in quantitative research specifically.
  • Finally, to consolidate the learning, we will take a look at ethical considerations in research examples.

Ethical considerations in research, abstract images of man standing in front of cork mechanism, health shield and scales, StudySmarterWhen investigating psychological phenomena, researchers have an ethical obligation to make sure that participants are respected and protected throughout and after an experiment, freepik.com/vectorjuice

Ethical Considerations in Research Psychology

The purpose of ethical considerations in research is to ensure that participants' rights are maintained and are kept from being harmed whilst contributing to the psychology field by partaking in research.

Ethical considerations are a series of guidelines researchers should follow when conducting research into behaviour.

The ethical guideline within the UK is formed and maintained by the British Psychological Society (BPS). Several ethics committees are responsible for ensuring that researchers maintain their ethical responsibility. If these are breached, there are serious consequences for the researcher. The purpose of this is to maintain the quality of research and prevent any harm that may occur.

The main ethical considerations in research that we will take a look at today are specifically what they are and how researchers can maintain high ethical standards.

  • Informed consent
  • Rights to withdraw from research
  • Confidentiality - anonymity and privacy
  • Psychological and physical harm
  • Debriefing and deception

Informed consent

Informed consent is when participants of a research study agree to participate in the study. After being told all the relevant information about the study, they have given their consent to partake in the research.

Before agreeing to participate in a study, researchers should give participants a document that lists the hypothesis and what is expected from them during the experiment. One of the most important features of informed consent is that researchers must disclose potential risks; this is important as you cannot decide without knowing all of the facts. Once this has been signed, it can be established that participants are fully aware of what they are getting themselves into, and researchers have maintained this ethical standard.

The issue of informed consent can become more complex when the participants are from a vulnerable group of the population, such as children. In these cases, researchers need to ensure that consent is received from a parent or legal guardian who understands the research's aims, hypotheses and associated risks.

Ethical considerations in research, women pointing at the side of a balanced scale that has a tick in it and the other side has nothing in it, StudySmarterBefore deciding to partake in research, participants are told the details of the study. Participants will then weigh up the pros and cons and make an informed decision, freepik.com/vectorjuice

Right to withdraw

The right to withdraw allows participants to stop and leave at any point of the study. From before the study has begun until after the data has been collected.

This ensures participants are not forced to participate in research if the study is psychologically or physically harming them or causing a hindrance, or simply they no longer wish to partake in the study. The right to withdraw is an essential consideration that must be followed when conducting research.

Confidentiality

Confidentiality in ethical considerations in research refers to ensuring that participants' personal details are kept anonymous and private throughout and after an experiment.

Confidentiality is important, especially when investigating sensitive subjects such as abuse or addiction. The point of confidentiality is to ensure that readers should not be able to identify participants; this is because it may affect their later life. For instance, the participants may face discrimination.

Several methods are used to maintain participants' confidentiality. Personal details should not be written on reports, participants will be referred to by an assigned number rather than their name, and data will be stored and disposed of securely.

Psychological and physical harm

An important aspect of the researcher's ethical duties is ensuring that participants are not physically or psychologically harmed during an experiment. To ensure this does not happen, researchers should have medical staff available if potential physical harm may occur. Furthermore, researchers should offer counselling during or after the study to prevent long-lasting psychological harm.

In Zimbardo's (1971) Stanford prison experiment, the physical and psychological harm caused by the experiment was so severe that it had to be stopped prematurely.

Deception and debriefing

Deception and debriefing are more complex ethical issues to consider because deceiving participants involves misinforming participants. Deception is seen as necessary as some research cannot be done if the participants know they are being studied as they will likely behave in a way that would not represent reality, thus altering the results.

For example, Asch (1951) required participants to think that they were completing a vision test. If participants knew that the true aim of the investigation was to measure conformity, participants may have changed their behaviour which would have reduced the validity of the results.

Deception is a common ethical issue that is not upheld in research. When participants are told the true aims of an experiment, behaviour is swayed. Essentially, this would make the research futile as it does not measure what it intends to (low validity). Therefore, deception is combatted at the end of an experiment via debriefing.

To combat the issue of deception, participants are debriefed at the end of an experiment. During this, they would be told the true aims of the experiment, how they were investigated and how the research will be used/ applied to further our research knowledge. During this process, researchers may offer counselling and follow up meetings/ contact details to make sure that there are no lasting effects of participating. As discussed before, participants are always given the right to withdraw. If participants are uncomfortable with the research in light of the new information, then they can withdraw from the study.

Ethical Considerations in Qualitative Research

Qualitative research involves studying ideas and conceptual findings that relate to behaviour in-depth, leading to collecting qualitative data. Qualitative data is essentially non-numerical data.

Examples of qualitative research methods are questionnaires, interviews and observations.

As qualitative research requires in-depth reports, the researchers need to be careful to ensure that participants cannot be identified from the report. Furthermore, as qualitative research methods require much of participants' time, the researchers need to ensure they do not hinder their daily lives. Some methods, such as covert observations, require researchers to debrief participants at the end of the study.

Covert observation is a qualitative research method that involves the researcher observing participants' behaviour without their knowledge.

Ethical Consideration in Research Example

An example of qualitative research is Bowlby's (1944) 44 thieves' study which involved observing behaviour, specifically juvenile behaviour of children who had various attachment styles with their mothers.

The ethical considerations in research that were maintained during this study included informed consent given by parents, children's and parents' confidentiality, and participants being debriefed at the end of the study. These considerations were taken into account in order to prevent as much harm as possible, whether it be. These considerations were taken into account in order to prevent as much harm as possible whether it be emotional, physical or psychological.

This study is a good example of research that maintains the ethical responsibility of researchers.

Ethical considerations in research, Man in superhero costume standing in front of data that is locked, StudySmarterThe role of researchers is to prevent participants from being harmed by their research; during and after, freepik.com/jcomp

Ethical Considerations in Quantitative Research

Quantitative research involves collecting numerical and statistical data through the use of empirical methods that are objective.

Milgram's (1961) research collected both quantitative and qualitative research. Milgram's experiment famously had many ethical issues, such as the use of deception, which led to some serious psychological and physical harm to some of the participants.

Before conducting research nowadays, researchers are required to send the full information of their study to ethics committees. A study cannot be conducted unless approved by a psychology ethical committee. The committee ensures that participants' rights are maintained and that researchers are not breaching their ethical obligations. Based on this information, the Milgram study would not be accepted and be able to be replicated in this day and age.

Overall, ethical issues of psychological research should always be taken into consideration in order to avoid negative consequences for those involved. However, not everything researched can always be 100% ethically pure. Researchers are required to do their best to overcome ethical setbacks as long as they are not too severe.

Ethical Considerations in Research - Key Takeaways

  • Ethical considerations are a series of guidelines researchers should follow when conducting research into behaviour.
  • Ethical consideration is important in research because it ensures that the quality of research is maintained and prevents people from being harmed and their lawful rights from being taken away during and after research.
  • The main ethical considerations in research are:
    • informed consent, right to withdraw, confidentiality, psychological and physical harm should not occur, and deception.
  • The BPS has described methods that researchers can implement to prevent ethical standards from being breached, such as debriefing, offering counselling sessions and methods to hide participants' identity.
  • An ethical consideration in research example that breaches ethical obligations is Zimbardo's (1971) Stanford prison experiment. The physical and psychological harm caused by the experiment was so severe that the study had to be stopped prematurely.

Frequently Asked Questions about Ethical considerations in research

Ethical considerations are guidelines you must follow when conducting studies on behaviour to ensure a safe and secure environment for the participants to be protected from psychological/physical/emotional harm.

Ethical considerations must be taken into account when conducting research. Some examples of how ethical considerations in research may be included are maintaining confidentiality, offering counselling, debriefing participants and providing the details of the study when asking for consent to partake in research. 

An example of qualitative research is Bowlby's (1944) 44 thieves’ study which involved observing behaviour specifically juvenile behaviour of children who had various attachment styles with their mothers. 


The ethical considerations in research that were maintained during this study included informed consent given by parents, children's and parents' confidentiality was maintained and participants were debriefed at end of the study. These considerations were taken into account in order to prevent as much harm as possible whether it be These considerations were taken into account in order to prevent as much harm as possible whether it be emotional, physical or psychological. 

Some examples of key ethical issues include:


  • Informed consent
  • Right to withdraw
  • Confidentiality
  • Psychological/ physical harm 
  • Debriefing and deception

Ethical consideration is important in research because it ensures that the quality of research is maintained and prevents people from being harmed and their lawful rights from being taken away during and after research. 

Final Ethical considerations in research Quiz

Question

What are examples of ethical considerations in research? 

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Answer

  • Informed consent
  • Right to withdraw
  • Confidentiality 
  • Psychological/ physical harm
  • Deception and debriefing

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Question

At what point of a study are participants allowed to withdraw from a study? 

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Answer

At any point of the study.

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Question

What is confidentiality?

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Answer

Confidentiality in ethical considerations in research refers to ensuring that participants' personal details are kept anonymous and private throughout and after an experiment.

Show question

Question

Which ethical standards were maintained in Bowlby's (1944) 44 thieves' study? 

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Answer

The ethical considerations in research that were maintained during this study included informed consent given by parents, children's and parents' confidentiality was maintained and participants were debriefed at end of the study. These considerations were taken into account in order to prevent as much harm as possible whether it be These considerations were taken into account in order to prevent as much harm as possible whether it be emotional, physical or psychological. 

Show question

Question

How can psychological harm be combatted in research? 

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Answer

Offering and providing counselling. 

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Question

How is deception combatted in research? 

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Answer

To combat the issue of deception, participants are debriefed at the end of an experiment. During this process, researchers may offer counselling and follow up meetings/ contact details to make sure that there are no lasting effects of participating. If participants are uncomfortable with the research in light of the new information, then they can withdraw from the study. 

Show question

Question

Give an example of a vulnerable group that is often studied in psychological research.

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Answer

Children

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Question

How can participants in psychological research remain anonymous?

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Answer

Using pseudonyms instead of fake names.

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Question

How did Asch's (1951) study on conformity deceive participants?

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Answer

The participants were told that the aim of the study was to test visual perception rather than conforming. 

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Question

What is ethics?

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Answer

Ethical considerations or ethical issues are a set of guidelines that researchers follow in order to ensure research is not harmful and dangerous to those who participate.

Show question

Question

Which of the following forms of harm may occur during research?

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Answer

Psychological harm

Show question

Question

What is informed consent? 

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Answer

Informed consent is when participants of a research study agree to participate in the study. After being told all the relevant information about the study, they have consented to partake in the research.

Show question

Question

Give an example of psychological research using vulnerable groups

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Answer

Bowlby (1944) 44 juvenile thieves study.

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Question

How can an individual from a vulnerable group give their informed consent?

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Answer

Through a parent or legal guardian/caregiver.

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Question

Why is it important that ethical issues are discussed in research?

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Answer

To ensure that the individuals who participate in psychological research are protected from various forms of harm

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