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Ethics and Socially Sensitive Research

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Ethics and Socially Sensitive Research

What do ethics have to do with psychology? Over many decades, questions about ethical behaviour in psychology research have been a source of discussion and controversy. All psychological research has ethical boundaries and must adhere to research standards. Nevertheless, there are several examples of socially sensitive research in the history of psychology.

This article is about the debate on ethics and socially acceptable research in psychology and how specific considerations may affect how psychologists conduct research. The term ‘research’ encompasses the results of a study and/or theories.

We will begin by looking at ethics in psychological research.

Importance of ethics in psychology

There are organisations designed to ensure that researchers conduct ethical psychological research. The British Psychological Society (BPS) published The Code of Ethics and Conduct, which provides rules of conduct that researchers should follow in their daily behaviour. Similarly, the American Psychological Association (APA) provides an Ethics Code for all members. We call these ethical guidelines.

If the research has ethical implications, it may have consequences either for the participants in a study or for the general public. If the research has not followed appropriate ethical guidelines or has done so inadequately, ethical implications are a risk.

Researchers conduct an aggression experiment with 20 participants. All have given informed consent. However, two of the participants begin to argue and threaten violence. If the researchers do nothing to stop them, there are clear ethical implications, as there is a risk that the participants who argue will suffer physical and emotional harm. There is also a risk that the other 18 participants will be distressed if they witness physical violence.

BPS ethics

The four ethical principles for researchers to follow at all times are respect, competence, responsibility, and integrity.The following are the essential BPS ethical considerations that researchers must weigh before conducting research.

Consent

Participants must have given informed consent, i.e., they have been informed of and agree to the nature of the study or experiment.

Deception

Participants must not be deceived or misled. The researchers must determine whether they could have avoided it if they are.

Debriefing

Participants must be debriefed and allowed to ask questions.

Ethics and Socially Sensitive Research Ethical guidelines in psychological research StudySmarter

Researchers must follow ethical guidelines when carrying out psychological research. Unsplash

Withdrawal

Participants must be informed of their right to withdraw from the study or experiment at any time. They also have the right to withdraw their data after the research is complete.

Anonymity and confidentiality

Participants have the right to complete anonymity and confidentiality, except in certain situations (e.g., when there is a risk of harm to participants or persons associated with them or the research).

Participant protection

Participants must be protected from psychological, emotional, and physical harm.

What is socially sensitive research?

Joan Sieber and Barbara Stanley (1988) have used the term ‘socially sensitive’ research to describe research that has potentially negative consequences for those involved:

  • The participants of the research, or
  • The group of people the research represents.

For a more comprehensive definition, it may be helpful to briefly consider the American Psychological Association’s (APA) definition of socially sensitive research:

[Socially sensitive] research on topics likely to evoke controversy in the community or strong emotional responses from participants. Such topics would include those that have ethical implications affecting subgroups or cultures within society (e.g., ethnic minorities) [...]

Sieber and Stanley suggest four ways in which research can be socially sensitive. Researchers should make these considerations before conducting a study or developing a theory.

Research question

Before beginning research, the researcher should carefully consider their research question(s) to ensure that they are not biased or harmful in any way. A question such as, ‘Which gender is better at memory processing?’ could be detrimental because it assumes that one gender is better at memory processing than another.

Methodology used

The methodology used must take into account the rights of participants to confidentiality and anonymity. Will these rights be compromised if the participant confesses to a crime, for example? Researchers should also keep a cost-benefit analysis in mind. If the costs of a research (e.g., participant exposure) outweigh the benefits (e.g., a topic that benefits society), the research would be unethical.

Institutional context

Researchers need to be clear about who is funding the research and its purpose. Is it a government or a private organisation? If it is a private organisation, how will they use the results?

Interpretation and application of findings

Researchers should consider how their results will be interpreted and applied in the real world. Will they lead to policy changes? Could they influence social attitudes or values or lead to further research on the same topic?Conducting socially sensitive research may have ethical implications for participants or the general public.

Ethics and Socially Sensitive Research Research Considerations StudySmarter

Sieber and Stanley (1988) suggested four ways in which research can be socially sensitive. Unsplash

What are some socially sensitive research examples?

Some socially sensitive research examples may include research in the following topics or contexts:

  • Racial or ethnic differences.
  • Sex/gender differences.
  • Cultural/subcultural differences.
  • Research where participants may experience distress or physical or psychological harm.
  • Now that we have looked at the role of ethics in psychological research and defined socially sensitive research, we will look at some famous (or infamous) examples of psychological research that had ethical implications on either the participants or the wider public.

Ethical implications of Milgram’s shock experiment (1963)

Stanley Milgram’s (1963) shock experiment is a well-known example of a study with significant ethical implications for its participants. This obedience study found that 65% of participants would intentionally harm another person if asked to do so.

No informed consent

Researchers did not inform the participants of the true nature and purpose of the study, which was to test levels of obedience. Therefore, they did not give informed consent to participate in the obedience study.

Distress

Researchers did not tell the participants they would be administering real electric shocks to another person, which was distressing for many participants because they were hesitant and nervous. Some participants suffered seizures. The shocks were not real.They fully debriefed the participants after the experiment. However, there was concern that participants would face more distress if they knew they would harm another person if ordered to do so.When they presented the study results were presented to the public, they expressed shock and concern about the high rate of obedience.

Withdrawal from experiment

Participants did not feel they could withdraw from the experiment because the researcher (Milgram himself) encouraged them to continue administering shocks.

Although participants needed to be unaware of the true nature of the experiment, the conduct of this study had several ethical implications.

Ethical implications of Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment (1971)

Phillip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment (1971) is another well-known example of a study with significant ethical implications for its participants. In this experiment, participants were housed in a prison mock-up and assigned the roles of ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’.The experiment escalated to the point where it had to cease for fear of further emotional distress and physical violence between guards and prisoners.

Distress

Participants who were prisoners faced significant distress at the hands of the guards, who used numerous ways to gain control over the prisoners. They locked the prisoners in solitary confinement, insulted them, and removed their belongings.The prisoners reported a high level of suffering and psychological trauma during the experiment, yet the experiment continued.

Lack of objectivity

Zimbardo took on the role of a supervisor during the experiment itself. This study had ethical implications, as the researcher himself lacked objectivity. A conflict of interest arose between Zimbardo’s direct participation and his duty as a researcher to protect the welfare of the participants.

Withdrawal from experiment

One prisoner reported that he wanted to withdraw from the study but was not allowed to do so.

Although the experimental results led to changes in US prison policy, the ethical implications were so severe that ethics committees in the UK and US established guidelines to ensure such an experiment would not be repeated.

Ethics and Socially Sensitive Research Zimbardo and Milgram experiments StudySmarter

Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment (1971) and Milgram’s Shock Experiment (1963) had several ethical implications, Unsplash

Ethical implications of Bowlby’s monotropic theory (1969)

John Bowlby’s (1969) monotropic theory is a well-known example of a theory with ethical implications for the general public.The monotropic theory states that when a baby is born, there is a critical period during which the baby must form an attachment to a primary caregiver (usually the mother). If a primary giver deprives the baby of this attachment, it can harm their development and future relationships.

Impacts on mothers

The theory can have a detrimental effect on mothers, who probably feel they should stay home with their baby to avoid disrupting bonding. This implication can be problematic, especially if they need or want to return to work. Other people who think they should be home with their baby may also discriminate against them.This theory may also reinforce that a woman’s ‘natural’ role is a child-bearer.

Impacts on fathers

If the primary caregivers are usually the mothers, this may impact fathers’ involvement in child care if they feel less important to their baby’s development.This implication may also impact single fathers concerned about whether their mother’s absence will negatively impact their baby.

Bowlby’s monotropic theory, maternal deprivation theory, and his research on attachment, in general, have led to changes in the way children are cared for in nurseries and hospitals.

What are the advantages of socially sensitive research?

We will now look at some of the advantages of socially sensitive research in psychology.

Reducing prejudice

Conducting socially sensitive research can help reduce prejudice against certain groups or issues in society. When psychologists conduct socially sensitive research that benefits society, society’s understanding and awareness can improve. In turn, a reduction in stigma, discrimination, and prejudice ensues. Therefore, conducting socially sensitive research in certain social groups can be positive.

Research on individuals belonging to the LGBTQIA+ community may be considered socially sensitive because of the potential ethical implications for participants and society. It may also challenge misconceptions, reduce prejudice, and raise awareness.

Direct impact on social policy and practices

Socially sensitive research can sometimes directly impact creating or improving social policies and practices. Such changes can be beneficial to society as a whole.

Research on the cognitive interviewing technique (to combat eyewitness testimony unreliability) has shown that using this technique in police interviews can lead to improved eyewitness recall.In addition, Bowlby’s research on retention has led to improvements in the care of children in hospitals and child care facilities such as daycare centres. One example is giving children the opportunity to form a secure attachment to a permanent caregiver.

Not all socially sensitive research is controversial

Although there may be risks, not all socially sensitive research has to be controversial. When psychologists approach research with proper thought, it can positively affect social groups and society as a whole.

Ethics and Socially Sensitive advantages positive social policy changes StudySmarter

Socially sensitive research can lead to positive social policy changes, Unsplash

Widening research into other groups

You may have heard that psychologists conduct their research mainly on the WEIRD population (Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic). Also, many of the research participants are white university students. By conducting socially sensitive research on other groups, researchers are helping to redress this imbalance and shed light on different cultures and communities.

What are the disadvantages of socially sensitive research?

Let us now delve into some disadvantages of conducting socially sensitive research in psychology.

Stereotyping

Conducting socially sensitive research can sometimes perpetuate harmful stereotypes that negatively impact certain social groups. When research perpetuates harmful stereotypes, it can lead to discrimination and prejudice.

Bowlby’s research aims to perpetuate the stereotype that a mother is ‘naturally’ the best caregiver. This implication could lead to discriminatory behaviour against mothers (or women in general) and fathers.

Use of research

Psychologists may not be able to influence the use of research findings, and therefore there may be unintended consequences of the research. Governments may use research to improve or shape social policy, which can significantly affect certain social groups and the general public. There is little control over how others use research. This aspect can be problematic depending on the sensitivity of the research.

Participants’ interests

Depending on the nature of the research, it may affect or negatively impact participants’ interests. These include their emotional or physical well-being (both during and after the research) and their anonymity or confidentiality.

Milgram’s (1963) shock experiment caused participants distress, which negatively affected their interests.

Ethics and Socially Sensitive Research - Key takeaways

  • Ethics and socially sensitive research in psychology can affect how psychologists conduct research.
  • Research involves the results of a study and/or theories.
  • Ethical guidelines are rules of conduct researchers must follow. If they do not follow ethical guidelines, the research may have ethical implications for participants or the general public.
  • Sieber and Stanley (1988) considered four ways in which research can be socially sensitive.
  • Milgram’s (1963) shock experiment and Zimbardo’s (1971) prison experiment are examples of studies with ethical implications for their participants.
  • Bowlby’s monotropic theory (1969) is an example of a theory with ethical implications for the general public.
  • Among the advantages of socially sensitive research is that it reduces prejudice and can have a direct impact on social policy and practice.
  • Disadvantages of socially sensitive research include the risk of stereotyping, how the research is used, and the interests of participants.

Frequently Asked Questions about Ethics and Socially Sensitive Research

Sieber and Stanley (1988) used the term ‘socially sensitive’ research to describe research with potentially negative consequences for the research participants or the group of people the study represented.

The British Psychological Society (BPS) state researchers must follow four ethical principles at all times: respect, competence, responsibility, and integrity.

Carrying out socially sensitive research can sometimes perpetuate harmful stereotypes that are likely to impact certain social groups negatively. If a study perpetuates harmful stereotypes, it can lead to discrimination and prejudice.

Final Ethics and Socially Sensitive Research Quiz

Question

What does the term research include?

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Answer

The research includes the findings of a study and/or theories.

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Question

What are ethical guidelines?

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Answer

Ethical guidelines are conduct rules for researchers to follow in their daily conduct. The British Psychological Society (BPS) has the Code of Ethics and Conduct.

Show question

Question

What does it mean if research has ethical implications?

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Answer

If research has ethical implications, it may have consequences for the study participants or the general public. If the research has not followed appropriate ethical guidelines or has done so inadequately, ethical implications are a risk.

Show question

Question

What are BPS’ four ethical principles for researchers to follow at all times?

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Answer

The four ethical principles for researchers to follow at all times are respect, competence, responsibility, and integrity. 

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Question

Briefly, what were the ethical implications of Milgram's shock experiment (1963)?

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Answer

The ethical implications were: no informed consent, distress to the participants, and the inability to withdraw from the experiment.

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Question

Briefly, what were the ethical implications of Zimbardo's prison experiment (1971)?

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Answer

The ethical implications were distress, lack of objectivity, and the inability to withdraw from the experiment.

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Question

John Bowlby's monotropic theory (1969) is a well-known example of a theory with ethical implications on the wider public due to its impacts on _______.

Show answer

Answer

Both mothers and fathers.

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Question

According to Joan Sieber and Barbara Stanley (1988), what is ‘socially sensitive research’?

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Answer

Joan Sieber and Barbara Stanley (1988) used the term ‘socially sensitive’ research to describe research with potentially negative consequences for the research participants or the group of people the research represented.

Show question

Question

What are the four ways in which research could be socially sensitive?

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Answer

The research question, the methodology used, the institutional context, the interpretation and application of the findings. 

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Question

Why is the following research question ‘which sex is better at memory processing?’ damaging?

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Answer

This research question may be damaging as it assumes that one sex is better at memory processing than another. 

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Question

Researchers must be aware of who is ____ the research and what the ____ of it is. Fill in the blanks.

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Answer

Funding, purpose

Show question

Question

What are some socially sensitive research examples?

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Answer

Some socially sensitive research examples may include research in the following topics or contexts:


  • Racial or ethnic differences.
  • Sex/gender differences.
  • Cultural/subcultural differences.
  • Research where participants may experience distress or physical or psychological harm.

Show question

Question

What are the advantages of socially sensitive research?

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Answer

The advantages include that it may reduce prejudice, directly impact social policy and practices, and not all of it is controversial.

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What are the disadvantages of socially sensitive research?

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Answer

Disadvantages include the risk of stereotyping, the use of the research, and the interests of the participants.

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Question

What is an example of how socially sensitive research has led to social policy and practices changes?

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Answer

An example is a research conducted into the cognitive interviewing technique (to combat eyewitness testimony unreliability), which has shown that using this technique in police interviews can lead to improved eyewitness recall.

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