Ethical Guidelines in Psychological Research
Psychological research involving human subjects must take into account many ethical considerations. Ethical guidelines that govern the use of human subjects in research are a fairly new but important construct; these ethical policies serve to minimize harm to human participant's mental and/or physical well being during experimental research (Figure 1).
One of the most famous instances of unethically-performed experiments was the Tuskegee experiment. From 1932 to 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service sought to study the natural progression of untreated syphilis in poor, rural black men who thought they were receiving free health care from the U.S. government. Out of the 600 men involved in the experiment, 399 had previously contracted syphilis before the study; however they were never told they had syphilis, are were led to believe they were receiving excellent free medical care. The largely immoral part of the experiment is that by 1947, penicillin was widely recognized as the standard treatment for syphilis. However, the African Americans involved in the experiment were not given the treatment that could cure them, and were continued to be tested for 25 year after a cure had been found. By the end of the study in 1972, only 74 of the test subjects were alive.
The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures was a series of notable social psychology experiments conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram. The experiments measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. The authority figure and learner were both in on the experiment, and the teacher (experiment subject) was told he or she was to administer a shock to the learner to teach him or her a sequence. If the learner failed, the shock was to be increased. The goal of the study was to see how far people would go if encouraged by the authority figure. The experiments were controversial and considered by many to be physically or psychologically abusive.
The Stanford prison experiment was a study regarding the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. The participants adapted to their roles well beyond expectations, as the guards enforced authoritarian measures, and ultimately subjected some of the prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, at the request of the guards, readily harassed other prisoners who attempted to prevent it. The experiment even affected the head researcher himself, who, in his role as the superintendent, permitted the abuse to continue until the experiment ended after only six days. Both guards and prisoners stepped beyond the boundaries of what had been predicted, leading to dangerous and psychologically damaging situations.
As a result of these and other unethical research studies, several organizations were put in place to help monitor clinical research involving humans. Such organizations include the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, and the Office for Human Research Protections. At most colleges and universities, institutional review boards, also known as ethics committees, are formally chosen to approve, review, and monitor bio-medical and behavioral research involving humans.
To protect the rights and well-being of research participants, and at the same time discover meaningful results and insights into human behavior, virtually all psychological research must pass an ethical review process (Figure 2). At most colleges and universities, this is conducted by an ethics committee or institutional review board. This group examines the proposed research to make sure that no harm is done to the participants, and that the benefits of the study outweigh any possible risks or discomforts to people taking part in the study. Minors in particular are protected at greater levels than adults in ethical guidelines, because a minor is not considered to be able to consent for his or her self.
There is a duty to protect the rights of people in the study as well as their privacy and sensitivity. The confidentiality of those involved in the study must be maintained, keeping their anonymity and privacy secure. A process of informed consent is used to make sure that volunteers know what will happen in the experiment and understand that they are allowed to quit the experiment at any time. Also, a debriefing is typically done at the conclusion of the experiment in order to reveal any deceptions used and generally make sure that the participants are unharmed by the procedures. Today, most research in social psychology involves no more risk of harm than can be expected as by routine psychological testing or normal daily activities.