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Ethical Guidelines in Psychology

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Ethical Guidelines in Psychology

What if a researcher asked you to participate in a study designed to test how long a human can survive without water? I doubt you would agree to an experiment like that!

But what if the researcher told you it was a study about surviving in the wild, and left out the part about not having access to water? You would probably get very upset as soon as you found out the real purpose of the study. Thankfully, an experiment like this one is considered unethical.

  • What are ethical guidelines in psychology?
  • Why are ethical guidelines in psychology important?
  • What are the seven main ethical guidelines in psychology?
  • What are examples of organizations that produce ethical guidelines in psychology?
  • What are some of the issues with ethical guidelines in psychology?

The Meaning of Ethical Guidelines in Psychology

You might be wondering how ethics relate to research in psychology. Why are they called guidelines instead of rules? What happens if you don't follow these guidelines?

Ethical guidelines are professional recommendations and advice for psychologists to follow as they do research or provide treatments.

Ethical guidelines tell us how to safely and responsibly conduct a research study or provide treatments to clients. They recommend what to do and what not to do in your research study. Some of these guidelines relate to doing research that involves animals, and some of them relate to working with other human beings.

In general, ethical guidelines are designed to respect the rights and dignity of human beings, and help protect the proper handling of animals. Different areas of psychology, like clinical psychology or biopsychology, have their own specialized guidelines suited to the kind of research and work done in that field.

Ethics are ultimately guidelines rather than rules because they are not legally regulated the same way as laws are. There are some laws surrounding the conduct of research, but they are generally much less detailed than ethical guidelines. If you decide to go against an ethical guideline, a participant or fellow researcher could report you to a professional governing organization, which could then take away your license and discredit you as a professional in the field.

Providing Information to Research Participants

There are two basic aspects of ethical guidelines in research studies: informed consent, and debriefing. Informed consent is something you obtain before you start the study. Typically, researchers put together a document explaining who they are, what they are studying, and why they are recruiting participants for the study. The informed consent document has to contain information on the potential benefits and risks of participation.

Bonnie is part of a research team investigating the relationship between daily coffee consumption and average grades in a sample of college students. Bonnie is responsible for writing the team's informed consent document that they will provide to each participant to sign. She makes sure to include information about the team, the study, and the potential benefits of the research. She also includes information about potential risks. Since the study only includes a survey that participants fill out, the risk is very low.

After the participants have completed their part of the study (filled out the survey, completed a test, received a treatment, etc.), the researchers conduct a debriefing session. These sessions are designed to give the participants any information about the study that the researchers had to keep a secret until the study was over.

Debriefing helps protect a client's right to information about their participation without potentially altering the results of the study. If a participant knows that you are asking them questions to determine their level of cognitive development, they may try to impress you or become very nervous. Both of these dynamics could alter the results of the study.

The Importance of Ethical Guidelines in Psychology

Did you know that ethical guidelines for research in psychology are relatively new? There used to be no guidelines for researchers! As you can imagine, this created some serious problems. In the early years of psychology, there were many studies conducted that would be considered unethical now.

Examples of past unethical experiments that can no longer be replicated include the Little Albert experiment of a century ago, Harlow's maternal separation research on monkeys, and Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment.

Even though there were many unethical experiments in the early years of psychology, one particular experiment pushed government and professional agencies to create guidelines for psychology research: Milgram's shock experiments in the 1960-70s. In Milgram's experiment, participants thought they were physically harming another person (who was part of the research team). No one was actually physically harmed, but the emotional stress was high.

Milgram couldn't come right out and tell his participants that he was studying obedience. He wanted to know if the participants would obey an authority figure if they were told to do something wrong and truly believed they were doing it. The person who was supposed to be receiving the shocks pretended to be hurt by yelling and screaming. As far as the participants knew, they were intentionally harming another human being.

After his study, Milgram and his team tried to contact as many participants as possible to debrief. Almost all of the participants were glad they had participated in the study, despite the emotional toll. Milgram's research gave us insights into human behavior that we would not have been able to learn any other way. Still, his methods were highly unethical and harmful.

Milgram's experiment prompted psychologists and other scientists to seriously consider the dangers of deception in research. How much deception is too much? If the deception can cause a participant to unknowingly agree to do something that could harm them, the researcher needs to provide more information. A person's decision to be part of a research study always has to be a well-informed decision.

Examples of Ethical Guidelines in Psychology

So what exactly are these guidelines that researchers should follow? Professional codes of ethics (documents describing all of the ethical guidelines) go into detail about all of the different guidelines, but there are five principles that apply to all research:

  1. Conduct research that benefits participants rather than harms.
  2. Conduct research that upholds the highest standards of professionalism.
  3. Conduct research that is honest, responsible, and honorable.
  4. Conduct research that is as fair and unbiased as possible.
  5. Conduct research that puts the value of human life above all else.

These five principles are defined by the American Psychological Association, the leading governing organization for psychologists in the USA. Other governing organizations include the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), Institutional Review Boards, and state and federal legislation.

Seven Ethical Guidelines of Human Research in Psychology

Based on those five principles, there are seven things to keep in mind as you conduct research and put together your informed consent document.

  1. Tell participants what your study is about (as much as possible), how long it will take, and what methods you are using.
  2. Tell participants that they have the right to stop participating in the study at any time for any reason.
  3. Tell participants all that they need to know about potential risks.
  4. Tell participants all that they need to know about potential benefits and why your study is important.
  5. Tell your participants that you will keep all of their information confidential, unless they agree to allow you to share certain information for the purposes of the study.
  6. Tell your participants if there is any prize or payment for participating in the study, and how they should expect to receive it.
  7. Tell participants how to contact you/your research team if they have any questions or concerns before, during, or after the study.

The American Psychological Association is the main organization that puts together a code of ethics for psychologists to follow. Most colleges have their own Institutional Review Board (IRB) that oversees all the research done on their campus. Public universities are required to have an IRB. Before a student can conduct research, they first have to submit a proposal to the IRB for approval.

We've mostly been talking about humans so far. What about animals? For research studies that include animals, some of the ethical guidelines are the same: prevent harm whenever possible, and treat animals carefully and respectfully. The humane treatment of research animals includes how the researchers secure the animals, take care of them, use them in the study, decide what happens to them when the study is over, and (in some cases) dispose of them.

The guidelines for working with animals are not as strict as those for working with humans, but psychologists are still instructed to take the best care of animals that they can within the confines of the study. Psychologists can't experiment on animals however they want for any reason; there still has to be a beneficial purpose to the study, the study still has to be approved by an IRB, and the animals have to be treated as well as possible.

Issues with Ethical Guidelines in Psychology

One of the most common issues of these ethical guidelines is that informed consent can get in the way of study outcomes. Researchers have a double responsibility to inform participants while minimizing participant bias from impacting the study. If someone told you that you were participating in a study about family influences on educational choices, would you automatically answer questions about your family a certain way?

Maybe you are really proud of your family, and so you want to make them appear as good as possible. Maybe you had a rough family life growing up, so you want to make that clear in your responses. Either way, knowing the exact purpose of the study biases your answers in a certain direction.

What if you were just told that the study is about educational choices? This is still true, but it isn't all of the information. The researchers are purposefully deceptive to an extent.

Who decides what is acceptable or unacceptable in a research study? Ultimately, your college's IRB makes this decision. Without their approval, you are unable to ethically conduct research. Part of the ethical guidelines is seeking out and obtaining IRB approval for your research. What if you want to study something that IRB will not approve? In these cases, psychologists must put their professional duty above their personal preferences and interests.

Another main ethical issue is different opinions on using animals in research. Some psychologists have no problem with testing and potentially even killing animals during the course of a research study. Others hold that inhumane treatment of animals includes any type of intentional harm. It can be hard for a psychologist to know if using animals in research is acceptable, or should be avoided at all costs.

Ethical Guidelines in Psychology - Key takeaways

  • Ethical guidelines are professional recommendations and advice for psychologists to follow as they do research or provide treatments.

  • Informed consent is something you obtain before you start the study. It has to contain information on the potential benefits and risks of participating.

  • One particular experiment pushed government and professional agencies to create guidelines for psychology research: Milgram's shock experiments in the 1960-70s.

  • The five principles of conducting ethical research are provided by the American Psychological Association, which is the leading governing organization for psychologists in the USA.

  • Most colleges have their own Institutional Review Board (IRB) that oversees all the research done on their campus.

Frequently Asked Questions about Ethical Guidelines in Psychology

The five ethical guidelines in psychology are the APA's five principles: beneficence, responsibility, integrity, justice, and respect.

Some issues with the ethical guidelines in psychology are minimizing participant bias, problems obtaining IRB approval, conflicting professional duties, and using animals in research.

Ethical guidelines in psychology are important because they protect against harming human beings and causing undue harm to animals.

Some good examples of ethical guidelines in psychology are debriefing, and informed consent.

The 7 principles of ethics in psychology are informed consent, voluntary participation, disclosing risks, disclosing benefits, confidentiality, compensation, and contact information.

Final Ethical Guidelines in Psychology Quiz

Question

What is Informed Consent?

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Answer

Informed Consent must include a signed document that verifies a participant has been informed about the study and is aware that they are participating, what risks are involved, that their participation is voluntary and may be terminated at any time.

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Question

Ethical Guidelines in psychology are in place to _____. 

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Answer

Protect the research subjects.

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What does IRB mean?

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Answer

 Institutional Review Board

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Question

You must obtain ______ _______ from a participant before your study begins.

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Answer

informed consent

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APA stands for? 

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Answer

American Psychological Association

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Question

True/False: Participants have the right to withdraw from a research study at any time.


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Answer

True: The right to withdraw is a part of informed consent. 

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Question

What requires study participants to be told the purpose and truth about the research they participated in?


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Answer

Debriefing 

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Question

Are researchers allowed to offer incentives to participate in research studies?

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Answer

Yes- explanation of incentives is a part of the 7 ethical guidelines

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Question

Who decides what is acceptable or unacceptable in a research study?

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Answer

Your college's IRB

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T or F: All psychologists agree how to treat animals in research studies.

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Answer

False

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What is the main US governing organization for psychologists?

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Answer

The American Psychological Association (APA)

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T or F: Deception is never ok in a research study.

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Answer

False

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T or F: Potential risks to participants in a study are ok if the benefits outweigh the risks.

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Answer

True

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Question

_______ ____ is when a participant knows the purpose of a study before participating, and this impacts the study results.

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Answer

Participant Bias

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T or F: Since a code of ethics is just guidelines, there are no consequences to going against the code.

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Answer

False

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