Are ethical guidelines there to be broken?

25 10 2011

Ethical guidelines were brought about to help protect participants, and now it is very important that psychologists stick to them. I’m sure most of you will know who Milgram is, but he managed to break every single guideline in his study of obedience of an authoritative figure, and he got severely punished for it. I believe that guidelines should be followed, but there are one or two that can be bent a bit.

I’ll start by boringly listing them to you: Protection (from physical and mental harm), Withdrawal (out of the experiment at any time), Confidentiality, Debrief, Deception, Consent and Privacy (only being observed in places you can expect to be observed, for example, in a shop, but not in a toilet cubicle).

I believe that the first four are a must, but the other three can be tinkered with a bit.

Deception, to me, is the one that is the least important; it’s the only way we can see how someone would truly act and get the most valid data. For example, you might want to measure a variable such as which part of the body is a person’s eye most drawn to. If you tell a person this is what you’ll be looking at and show them a photo of a person, to make themselves look better to the experimenter, the participant will probably just look at the face in the photograph. Whereas if you wanted some more valid results, you would tell the participant you’re doing another eye tracking experiment, put their headgear on that tracks where their eye is looking (I don’t know the technical name, sorry), take them into a little cafe or bar in the building and ask them to wait there whilst you go get some stuff. Whilst you’re gone, all the data you wanted would be collected, and there you have it!

Consent and Privacy I believe can be tinkered with a biit, but only for observational purposes. If you ask for someone’s consent to observe them then they will most likely act differently to what they would do if they didn’t know they were being observed. And with privacy, it’s not fine to ignore it, but there may be some situations where you need to observe people in places they might not expect to be observed (not necessarily in a toilet).

On the other hand, it is very important that participants feel safe and confident to take part in experiments. If they know there is a chance that they could get harmed in any way or such, then they will be much less likely to take part in the experiment, and participants are ESSENTIAL for psychology to make any progress at all.

On the whole, I think the ethical guidelines are very important, but it is possible to get round a few to improve the validity of our results, as long as the participant is not harmed in any way.

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14 responses

25 11 2011
psycho4stats

amw1992, you make a very good point about Mengele, indeed there was a great deal of scientific progression after his experiments that have resulted in positive movements in medicine and such like. I was about to make the point that he was not a psychologist and therefore, although a good accident, it should have not happened full stop.
However, in Faye Short’s lecture the other day, she mentioned that Zimbardo’s prision study was desirable for replication by many psychologists, who never had the chance as it was deemed so unethical. She then went on to describe how the BBC however, repeated the study ‘for entertainment purposes’, although Haslam and Reicher were two psychologists backing the series.
This made me stop and think that under the name of science, ethics are something to be taken very seriously, and in my opinion, to a certain extent, quite rightly. Put the same study in the media spotlight and call it ‘entertainment’ instead however, and it’s a whole different ball game. Think of the countless number of ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’ shows we have seen, where participants are forced to eat disgusting animal parts…

25 11 2011
katepsuc7d

First of all, you mention Milgrim’s study. If his study was carried out now a days it would possibly be deemed deeply unethical. But you are saying it was unethical when it was carried out, and it wasn’t. At the time the study took place there was no ethical board, until a few years after the experiment took place. Since the experiment took place it was investigated and found that he did everything by the book and later received an award for his contributions to science because of his obedience experiment. So maybe more admired for his work than punished for his work.

However, I do agree that ethical guidelines should be put in place. I think it essential for participants to give consent especially when doing studies with vulnerable people e.g. children, mental health, physical disabilities etc. And it is essential to maintain confidentiality because people have the right to their privacy.

Although it has been found that some participants do not mind being deceived, and without that deception we couldn’t get true results. If participants knew exactly what we were testing for they may change their behaviour to give us better results or make themselves look better throughout the experimentation … and what use would that be to us? We wouldn’t have reliable and valid results and we’d have to do the whole thing again. So I believe deception is just as an important part of ethics and research as all other guidelines we follow. And after the experiment is over the participants are fully informed of the experiment and debriefed, so they aren’t deceived for ever and we have more significant results. 🙂

24 11 2011
22 11 2011
prpnw

I agree with you that the code of ethics and conduct brought in by the BPS was extremely important and wise. Like you said, researchers have the resposibility to protect thier participants from harm. I don’t think anything would be more unfair that having someone willing voulenteer for your study and in response physically or psychologically harm them! If we want research to improve and develop in the correct way the guidelines need to be followed. As you said the guidelines on deception are a bit more leniant than the others. In most studies a small amount of deception needs to be used in order for the experiment to be a success. If the participants are able to guess the aims of the study they may react differently and the results wouldn’t be valid. Taking Milgram’s shocking experiment…if participants weren’t allowed to be decieved they would have had to give real shocks instead! So all in all, these ethical guidelines have been brought in for the better. Without them dangerous experiments may still be taking place like the well known zimbardo prison experiment and the study of little albert where he was made to learn to be afraid of fluffy white objects.

22 11 2011
roydeanschlipp

I think you’re blog was very interesting and you understand the ethics quite well, however perhaps your views could be quite controversial?
You said that certain ethics such as deception could be “tinkered a bit” , and many people may agree with you, but I feel that this vagueness may be a slight problem, perhaps different researchers would have different opinions on just how much of these guidelines they can tinker, and in doing so we may cross the line on what is ethically sound in the hope of getting results for science.
Also one ethic principle you may have glanced over is confidentiality, what are your views on this? I believe this is one of the most important ethical principles that researchers need to stick to as it is important that researchers appreciate the need to keep everything confidential because without this we will start lacking participants willing to help with studies.

Sources : http://ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/cire/pac/foundation/index.html#1

22 11 2011
scarlettrose23

Ah yeah I see your point about the ‘tinkering’ thing :s

And I mentioned confidentiality at the start, when I said the guidelines I believed should always be followed

22 11 2011
Homework for my TA (week 9) « prpsjj

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16 11 2011
prpsjj

I agree with you that deception is one of the ethical issues that can sometimes be broken (if and only if participants are then debriefed afterwards), And in fact many surveys have found that most participants have suggested that they actually don’t mind being deceived, Milgram himself, defended his work, saying that 84 % of his participants surveyed later said they were “glad” or “very glad” to have participated and many of them wrote to him thanking him for opening their eyes. Kimmel (1998) noted that, in some cases, using deception is the only way to obtain certain kinds of information, and that prohibiting all deception in research would “have the egregious consequence of preventing researchers from carrying out a wide range of important studies”. So in this case I do agree that its often ok to deceive.

I agree with you that sometimes privacy when observing participants but like you said it would just be wrong to observe them whilst in a toilet cubical. But i also feel that the ethical issue of privacy goes further than this, and also involves things like keeping participants and their data anonymous and I feel that this is important and should not be broken.

28 10 2011
28 10 2011
prpdh

I can understand your point that Confidentiality and Withdrawal are important but when it comes to studies such as Zimbardo’s and Milgram, where ethics were rather lacking, it highlighted a phenomenon that sparked a lot of research perhaps years before someone could have constructed an ethical way of testing it.
Perhaps sometimes ethics should be ignored if its greater good outweighs the costs and aids in scientific progression?

28 10 2011
forcedtwoblog

The ethical guidline which we follow are well just guidlines, which can be flexable if need be ( such as the use of deception and concent which you underlined). However, when conducting resurch your particpants wouldn’t want you to think that your resurch outweighs their ethical conserns.
In Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s study neither (to beginwith, Milgrams obedance test was later repeted around the world… dont know about Zimbardo’s prison stimualtion adn the missteatment of its ‘prisoners’) knew what the results would show . However, Zimbardo and milgram in these studies chose resurch over the partcipants safty. Despite some participant later thanking Milgram for the insight into obedance, its far too easy for things to go harribly wrong as in the prison stimulation where at t prisoners where abused because there was no rules for the gards to follow towards tretment towards prisoners.This suggest that if we are too flexable with the ethical guidless we may unknowingly put participants in harm as in Zimbardo’s and millgrams studies.

28 10 2011
amw1992

I just posted this comment but it came up as Anonymous.

I agree with you that some of the ethics we take into account when conducting research can be bent a little so that our data is valid. As the person above said the bps has addressed this and stated that it is okay to a degree. You mentioned Milgram’s study in this and another study with large ethical problems is Zimbardo’s prison stimulation study. Also another hugely ethically inappropriate area of research is Josef Mengele’s research carried out on concentration camp inmates, particularly identical twins. Mengeles research most definitely broke all the rules of ethics and his work today is still considered one of the most inhumane pieces of research ever to be carried out. However as much as it pains me to say this because of his research we have furthered our knowledge massively and it has infact helped save lives. Although Mengeles research was an extreme that should NEVER be reached again, it leads to the question should we sometimes break the rules to help possibly thousands of people? of course by this I mean to a certain degree, Milgrams participants in fact reported that they didn’t feel as psychologically damaged as was made out.

28 10 2011
Anonymous

I agree with you that some of the ethics we take into account when conducting research can be bent a little so that our data is valid. As the person above said the bps has addressed this and stated that it is okay to a degree. You mentioned Milgram’s study in this and another study with large ethical problems is Zimbardo’s prison stimulation study. Also another hugely ethically inappropriate area of research is Josef Mengele’s research carried out on concentration camp inmates, particularly identical twins. Mengeles research most definitely broke all the rules of ethics and his work today is still considered one of the most inhumane pieces of research ever to be carried out. However as much as it pains me to say this because of his research we have furthered our knowledge massively and it has infact helped save lives. Although Mengeles research was an extreme that should NEVER be reached again, it leads to the question should we sometimes break the rules to help possibly thousands of people? of course by this I mean to a certain degree, Milgrams participants in fact reported that they didn’t feel as psychologically damaged as was made out.

27 10 2011
psuc2f

Right first things first I agree that following the ethical guidelines is important not only to protect the participants health but also in order not to scare of participants from taking part in psychological studies because simply no participants, no research. I understand and agree that some studies can not be done without deception however this is no excuses to not follow the ethical guideline.
The British Psychological Society are aware and have a procedure to allow studies to use deception in a way that will minimize the impact on the participants. The BPS ethics guide state “It may be impossible to study some psychological processes without withholding information about the true object of the study or deliberately misleading the participants. Before conducting such a study, the investigator has a special responsibility to (a) determine that alternative procedures avoiding concealment or deception are not available; (b) ensure that the participants are provided with sufficient information at the earliest stage; and (c) consult appropriately upon the way that the withholding of information or deliberate deception will be received.”.
What the guidelines are saying is that deception is allowed in studies as long as there is no other way of conducting the study and that the participants other rights are not being violated in the process and there are some clever ways to get around these issues. The main concern of deception studies is that they may cause psychological harm to the participant. There are several ways to get negotiate this problem. The first way is to tell other who are not part of the study, preferable people who are similar to those in your study, and ask if they would feel if they were part of the study and if they think the study would cause harm. The second way would be to debrief the participant as soon as you could and make sure that they are provided with professional counselling if they display any symptoms of psychological harm.
In conclusion the guidelines are there for the interest of the participants and researchers. They are there not only to protect the participant but also to help researcher find ways to conduct their studies in a way that is humane and should never be bent in any circumstances.

References
1) http://www.bris.ac.uk/Depts/DeafStudiesTeaching/dissert/BPS%20Ethical%20Guidelines.htm

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