Psychology Notes for AS & A2

AQA Specification A

Module 3

Social Psychology - Ethical Issues in Psychological Research


Ethics are involved in every topic for the A2 syllabus – research can be evaluated by many "yard sticks" including ethics. It all started with Milgram and the obedience research he conducted. When the study was published, the questions were raised: Why has this been
done? Should it have been done?

In the USA a Code of Ethics for psychologists was drawn up. Until then it had been a case of common sense and obeying the law. Milgram did not break any laws, but what he did is generally considered unethical. Britain then followed with a Code of Ethics drawn up by the BPS (British Psychological Society), which does differ from that of America's.

The code of ethics in both countries is updated as needed. After the following example, amendments were made to the American code. A study was carried out in the New York subways. A researcher would pose as a passenger and fake a heart attack on one of the trains, whilst other researchers monitored the behaviour and reactions of other passengers.

The New York Times published an article about the study, which brought it to the attention of the citizens. Sadly, a member of the public suffered a heart attack on the subway not long after the article was published, and because passengers assumed it was the researchers, no one came to his aid and he subsequently died.

BPS Code of Ethics

In a nutshell, if you do nothing to hurt others, or hurt the reputation of psychology, you will be following the BPS code of ethics (Ray White).  There are three codes drawn up by the BPS – one concerning work with humans, one concerning work with animals, and one for psychological practitioners.

  1. Introduction
    Mutual respect and confidence is needed between investigators and participants. Ethical guidelines are to clarify conditions under which psychological research is acceptable.
  2. General
    Investigation should be considered from all standpoints, including the participants'. Ethical implications and psychological consequences must always be considered. Where gender, race, culture or ethnic differences occur in the participants, the best judges of the implications for the investigation would be people from their peer groups.
  3. Consent
    Informed consent should be obtained wherever possible. This involves informing the participant of the reasons for the study and what is expected of them. There are few cases where this is not required: if someone is doing something in public where they would normally expect to be observed, they are giving permission to be observed.
  4. Deception
    Never deceive participants about any aspect of the study they are taking part in. (Much research looked at so far was conducted before the code of ethics was written.)
  5. Debriefing
    Active intervention is the key, discuss the research and findings with the participants.   They should leave in the same state they arrived in, as far as possible. If people suffer as a result of your research, then it is your responsibility to cover all the costs of getting them back to their initial state. Milgram may have incurred costs exceeding 1 million.
  6. Withdrawal
    Participants must be informed of their right to withdraw from the study, without penalty, at any stage of research. After debriefing, participants still have the right to withdraw their data and see it destroyed in their presence.
  7. Confidentiality & Privacy
    The Data Protection Act protects participants. Their identity and details must remain hidden. But, there is a duty to break this if human life is in danger: e.g. suicide threat.
  8. Protection of Participants
    Never ask participants to take risks they would not normally take. Always check they do not suffer from a medical condition that may be affected by the study.
  9. Observational Research
    Participants may not always be able to give informed consent, but always respect the people you are studying.
  10. Giving advice to Participants
    If you become aware that a participant has a problem, refer them to someone qualified to deal with it, should they wish.
  11. Monitoring Colleagues
    We all have responsibility to monitor our own work and that of others to ensure that this code is being followed. This applies to all levels, including student investigations.
  12. Publication
    It is your responsibility to attempt to have your research published. This is because in the real world, research takes a long time and costs a lot of money. If your research fails and you do not publish it, someone else will eventually have the same idea and invest a lot of time and money in coming up with the same conclusions as you – this is waste.  More is learned from failed research than successful research.

Guidelines for Socially Sensitive Research with humans

The BPS also produced guidelines for Socially Sensitive research – this is where the results may cause a group of people a real or perceived problem.

An example is a study of homosexual behaviour in relation to AIDS. This led people to believe that AIDS was just a "gay disease". Another example is a study of racial differences in intelligence. This study failed, was not proved, but because it was even carried out led people to believe that there was a difference in intelligence related to race.

The Guidelines are as follows:

  1. Privacy
    Some research may shape public policy, so privacy is of the utmost importance.
  2. Confidentiality of Data
    e.g. Someone confessing to have AIDS but not telling their partner. Never breach confidentiality.
  3. Sound and Valid Methodology
    Check a million times if the results could find a way into the public domain that the research and results is sound. Always ensure that you have valid reasons for conducting the research in the first place.
  4. Deception
    Avoid all forms of deception, even self-deception. E.g. publishing a study showing that girls were better than boys at maths. Would girls stop studying?
  5. Informed Consent
    Same as before, but more so.
  6. Justice & Equitable Treatment
    Research techniques or finding should not result in some people being treated unfairly. E.g. withholding experimental drug or educational technique from some but not others.
  7. Scientific Freedom
    Must be weighed against the interests of wider society. Some research should be, and are, carefully monitored. Discuss your study with others in the field before publication. Michael Rutter researched whether a gene of criminality existed (proven false), but much discussion occurred publicly before the research was completed and the results known.
  8. Ownership of Data
    Welcome openness, but data in the wrong hands could be potentially explosive.
  9. Value & Epistemology of Social Scientists
    Our own preconceived ideas should not interfere. E.g. does race affect IQ? This statement infers that you believe that it does, otherwise you would not research it.
  10. Risk / Benefit Ratio
    Does the end justify the means? How useful will the study and results be? Will the results, even if you are right, outweigh the cost of research (to all involved, not just financial cost). The Risk / Benefit ratio is harder to ascertain in Socially Sensitive research.

All Material Copyright 2001 / 2002 Kerridwen Red