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April 3, 2021

Thoughts on the function of ethics in social psychological research

Filed under: My Thoughts — Suramya @ 1:30 AM

In research, specifically psychological research there is no unambiguous, right or wrong answer. A study that could psychological or physical discomfort to participants might lead to discoveries that benefit the participants and increase the sum of human participants. Rosenthal and Rosnow (1984) talk about the potential costs of failing to carry out certain research. Historically, many experiments have been conducted with major violations of the ethical considerations. For example, in the famous obedience experiment by Milgram the subjects were convinced that they were delivering painful and possibly life-threatening electrical shocks to another person (Milgram, 1963). Another experiment where ethics were ignored is the Stanford Prison Experiment (Haney et al., 1972). These controversial psychology experiments played a major role in the development of the ethical guidelines and regulations that psychologists must abide by today. These codes are designed to protect the safety, privacy and interests of the participants as well as protecting the psychologists.

When conducting research, the overall benefit should be weighed against the cost of conducting the experiment. There is a lot of debate about the ethical guidelines that should be followed but most researchers and institutions agree that the following key components should be followed during the experiment.

Voluntary Participation

The researchers should ensure that none of the participants in the study/experiment are forced to participate and are willing participants. In the past we have seen prisoners and poor people used in experiments without getting proper approvals.

Informed Consent:

All participants should be told about the procedures and any potential risks of the study. According to the American Psychological Association’s Ethics Code psychologists conducting research should inform the participants about:

  • The purpose of the research
  • Expected duration and procedures.
  • Potential Risks or adverse effects.
  • Participants’ rights to decline to participate and to withdraw from the research
  • Incentives (if any) for participation.

There is certain research where giving the participants details about the experiment can influence their responses and in these cases the use of deception is allowed. However, this is only in cases where it would be impossible to conduct the research without the deception. It is expected that the participants are debriefed about the purpose of the experiment after it is completed.

Participant Confidentiality

Confidentiality is an essential part of any ethical psychology research. None of the identifying information and individual responses should be shared with anyone outside the study.
The above listed guidelines give some generic standards for research but as each study has unique challenges most colleges and universities have an Institutional Review Board that oversees the research conducted by their faculty members and students. This ensures that the research being done is ethical and does not pose unnecessary risk to the participants.

– Suramya

PS: This was originally written as an essay for my Social Psychology class. Hence the really more formal writing style.

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