“Must the need for documented ethics procedures hinder research progress?”

Must the need for documented ethics procedures hinder research progress?  This is a contentious issue incessant throughout the history of psychological research; I will commence this discussion with a brief explanation of the ethical responsibilities researchers are presented with.

Researchers have two basic categories of ethical responsibility: (1) responsibility to the individuals, both human and non-human, who participate in their research studies; and (2) responsibility to the discipline of science and to be accurate and honest in the reporting of their research (Gravetter & Forzano, 2009). 

This piece is primarily concerned with the first category; ‘the responsibility to the individuals, both human and non-human’.  It is fair to state that researchers should be/are responsible for ensuring the safety and well-being of their research participants and subjects; abiding by all of the relevant ethical guidelines when conducting research.  Researchers are also obligated to present truthful and accurate reports and to give appropriate credit when they report the work or ideas of others (Gravetter & Forzano, 2009).

The nature of research places the researcher in a position of control over those participating in the study, however the researcher has no right to abuse their position of power to harm those participating in their study, physically, emotionally, or psychologically (Gravetter & Forzano, 2009).  There have been instances in the history of research where participants have been harmed in one of the aforementioned ways, subsequently shaping the ethical guidelines; which are regulated by the APA Ethics Code, state and local guidelines (Gravetter & Forzano, 2009).

Despite the emphasis on ethical considerations in the last decade or two, research by Adair, Dushenko and Lindsay (1985) provides evidence suggesting that ethical regulations have had very little effect on the use of deception.  Adair et al. (1985) examined the impact on experimental results of ethical procedures such as informed consent, freedom to withdraw, and constraints on the use of deception.  Their results show that “the proportion of studies that reported obtaining informed consent or explicitly giving ‘Ss’ the freedom to withdraw was negligible” and that “the practice of deception has not been reduced by ethical regulations”. The percentage of social psychological studies that used deception increased monotonically over the past three decades. Although recent data show a slight decline, the extremity of some deceptions does not seem to have moderated. Reports of debriefing Ss have generally increased; however, most investigators still do not report this practice, and few describe what Ss are told. It is argued that detailed reporting of these practices should be required and expected in all published research.

Is the use of deception unethical? This is a contentious issue that deserves particular consideration; therefore, this piece will be primarily focussed on the use of deception in research.

Those who believe that deception is unethical, and morally reprehensible (Ortmann, 1997) argue in favour of it being abolished from the profession of psychology; which is a very strong viewpoint to arrive at.  One only has to look at how much knowledge the profession of psychology has gained from studies deemed ‘unethical’. 

It is of importance to be reminded that research is fundamentally interested in examining behaviour under “normal” circumstances.  This is undoubtedly a difficult endeavour as participants often modify their natural behaviours in an attempt to promote a favourable self-image. In order to counterbalance this problem, researchers may resort to deception; by either withholding information about the study- passive deception; or deliberately presenting false or misleading information to the participants- active deception (Gravetter & Forzano, 2009).

In any study involving deception, the principle of informed consent is compromised because participants are not given complete and accurate information.  In these situations, a researcher has a special responsibility to safeguard the participants.  The APA guidelines identify three specific areas of responsibility; (1) the deception must be justified in terms of some significant benefit that outweighs the risk to the participants. The researcher must consider all alternatives to deception and must justify the rejection of any alternative procedures. (2)  The researcher cannot conceal from the prospective participants information about research that is expected to cause physical pain or severe emotional distress. (3) The researcher must debrief the participants by providing a complete explanation as soon as possible after participation is completed (Gravetter & Forzano, 2009).

In lucid terms, it is important the end justifies the means, but how can you answer this question a priori to conducting the experiment?  In some cases a study has set out to examine a one phenomenon and reported finding another; take for example, Landis’ (1924) study of emotional reactions; the study aim was to investigate whether different emotions create facial expressions specific to that emotion.  The outcome of the study was more important in highlighting how people will do almost anything when asked to, obedience.

I believe that the aforementioned example exemplifies how it is near impossible to answer the question “does the end justify the means?”  The results Landis obtained were completely unexpected and of great importance to the field of psychology, providing us with evidence of obedience.

There are a number of infamous studies where deception has been used, resulting in them being deemed unethical.  Despite, research indicating that individuals who have participated in deception experiments enjoyed the experience more, received more educational benefit from it, and did not mind being deceived or having their privacy invaded. Such evidence suggests that deception, although unethical from a moral point of view, is not considered to be aversive, undesirable, or an unacceptable methodology from the research participant’s point of view (Christensen, 1988).  This research offers an alternate more positive view of deception. 

It appears that deception is deemed unethical due to particularly infamous studies; such as Milgram’s obedience study and Zimbardo’s prison study, even though deception is used in a large number of studies causing no harm at all.

In conclusion, there are ethical guidelines of which researchers have to adhere to; however, research conducted by Adair et al. (1985) suggests that ethical regulations have had ‘very little effect’ on the use of deception in research.  Some argue that deception in psychological research should be eradicated as it is unethical.  However, the APA does allow the use of deception, but only under certain circumstances; one of which is the ‘end must justify the means’.  This piece highlighted how answering this question may be difficult prior to conducting the study.  Research conducted by Christensen (1988) propounded evidence indicating that individuals prefer and gain more from studies that involve deception.

Thanks for reading.

For a more in-depth look at the studies mentioned in this piece, I have provided links below.







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