1.7 Ethics in Psychological Experiments: Importance & Examples

Jan 16, 2020 | ch1 History & Approaches in Psychology, Courses, Intro to Psychology

What are the ethical principles of psychological research? In this lesson, you’ll take a look at the careful considerations a psychologist must make with respect to her participants when she designs a test.


Let’s say a psychologist wanted to test whether people who are thirsty do more poorly on math tests than people who are well-hydrated. She puts out an ad for participants which says that she’s conducting a study of math ability that will take an hour. But when her participants turn up, she divides them into thirsty and non-thirsty groups. The non-thirsty people are each given two glasses of water and made to wait in a room for an hour and then take a twenty minute test. This is a little longer than the psychologist said, but they’re not too upset about it. The thirsty people, though, are forced to stay in a room without water for five hours before taking a twenty minute test. They’re justifiably upset; the psychologist made them uncomfortably thirsty and kept them for far longer than she said. The psychologist did not conduct her experiment with adequate ethical standards.

The importance of ethics in psychological research has grown as the field has evolved. Some of the most famous studies in psychology could not be conducted today because they would violate ethical standards. Philip Zimbardo designed his Stanford Prison Experiment to look into the causes of conflict between guards and prisoners. Zimbardo assigned some college students to play guards and others to play prisoners in a ‘prison’ set up in the basement of the Stanford Psychology Building. The experiment quickly got out of hand–the guards quickly began abusing the prisoners for the sake of order. Zimbardo let this go on until his girlfriend visited the ‘prison’ and was shocked at what she found. Zimbardo’s experiment allowed its participants to hurt each other both physically and psychologically and would not be approved by today’s review boards.

Ethical standards in psychological research are motivated by two main principles: minimized harm and informed consent. The psychologist studying thirst and test performance failed on both of these counts; she made her participants unnecessarily uncomfortable and didn’t tell them how long they would really be in the experiment. The experiment would likely not be approved by her university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). The IRB is in charge of determining whether the harm done by an experiment is worth its potential value to science and whether researchers are taking all of the precautions they can to make the research experience pleasant and informative for participants.

Minimized harm and informed consent underlie the entire process of designing and approving psychological research. When psychologists are designing experiments, they try to think about the least harmful way to test the hypothesis they’re interested in. Harm can be physical or psychological; deception is considered a form of psychological harm that is avoided if at all possible. If the psychologist is unable to design the experiment without any risk of harm, she must give patients a consent form to sign that clearly explains all of the risks involved in participating in the study. The psychologist conducting the thirst experiment would have to clearly explain in her consent form that the participants were likely to get uncomfortably thirsty.

Psychologists who feel they need to deceive their participants run into a unique challenge with regard to consent forms. Deception is quite common in psychological research because it allows researchers to design situations in which participants are more likely to act naturally. In another famous unethical experiment, Stanley Milgram told participants that they were helping him conduct an experiment about learning. He had an actor in another room play the ‘learner,’ and told the participants to administer electric shocks to the learner if he got a question wrong. Milgram’s experiment was actually on obedience – how long would his participants continue to listen to him and shock the learner? But if he had told them his real goals, it would clearly have affected their behavior; they would have been far less likely to be obedient if it were put in their minds that this was what Milgram was testing.

There is a genuine need for deception in psychological research, but ethics now require that it be minimized and that patients are fully informed of the deception in a debriefing session once the experiment is over. After every experiment, whether or not deception is involved, researchers will explain to their participants what they were trying to measure and allow the participants to ask any questions.

A final consideration in psychological research is use of animals in experiments. Some psychologists, particularly those that study biological aspects of psychology, feel that they need to conduct experiments on animals. They might want to test a new drug or do brain research that would be clearly unethical on a human. The American Psychological Association allows research to be conducted on animals, though they require that researchers are careful to – as with their human participants – minimize harm and make sure that the harm they do is worth it for its scientific benefit. Most experiments are also now conducted on animals like rats, mice and birds – research on primates, like in Harry Harlow’s famous experiment on love in neglected monkeys, is far more restricted.

To sum things up, for the sake of ethics, psychologists are expected to make every effort to minimize harm and get informed consent from participants. Deception is allowed but must be minimized, and participants must be informed of it after the experiment is over. Each research organization’s Institutional Review Board oversees the process of approving research. Animal research is allowed, but researchers must treat the animals with respect and dignity.

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