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Psychological Research Ethics

Psychological Research Ethics

Author: Sophia Tutorial

This lesson will list, describe, and examine the basic ethical guidelines for researchers as set forth by the American Psychological Association Code of Ethics.

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What's Covered

In this lesson, we'll discuss the ethics involved in performing research in the field of psychology.

The specific areas of focus include:

  1. Ethics in Psychological Experiments
  2. APA Professional Code of Conduct guidelines
    1. Importance of Competence
    2. Importance of Informed Consent
    3. Importance of Confidentiality
    4. Importance of Voluntary Participation
    5. Importance of Avoiding Harm


As with other sciences, psychology has a history of some dubious and unethical research, which has made the presence of a solidified ethical code for research very important.


One experiment known for using dubious research methods and producing questionable results is the Stanford Prison Experiment, a famous experiment that occurred in 1971. In the experiment, a group of males was split into two smaller groups, completely at random. One group was assigned the role of prisoner, and the other group was assigned the role of guard. They were put on one floor in a Stanford building, and were supposed to stay there for the duration of two weeks, enacting the different roles.

The idea was that they would eventually fall into the role of prisoner or guard, even though they weren't originally those types of people. The experiment actually only went on for about six days before it had to be aborted because it was causing so much psychological damage to the participants, and even to the researchers themselves. One of the researchers, Zimbardo, was acting as the prison manager, and he discussed how stressful it was to fill this role.

Understanding the psychological -- as well as the physical -- stresses that research participants are being put through is one of the important keys to understanding the role of ethics in psychological research.

Term to Know

    • Ethics
    • An outline of behavior that is morally right or wrong.


When it comes to ethics, the APA Professional Code of Conduct for Psychologists is generally considered to be the set of rules for psychological experimenting and psychotherapy.

The APA Professional Code of Conduct for Psychologists outlines in specific form what researchers and psychotherapists can and can't do.

Term to Know

    • APA Professional Code of Conduct for Psychologists
    • A professional code developed by the American Psychological Association to guide both researchers and therapists.

a. Importance of Competence

The first guideline noted under the Code of Conduct is the importance of competence in psychologists, which applies to both psychotherapy and research. This means that the psychologist should understand what he or she is researching, and what the effects of that research might be.

This need for competence coincides with the licensing requirements for a lot of psychology jobs, as many professions in psychology, even counseling professions, still require a state or national certificate.

These could be qualifications such as private licenses, or a masters degree. In fact, a lot of clinical practices require the psychologists to have some form of doctorate degree, either a Ph.D or a Psy.D.

b. Importance of Informed Consent

The second point to know under the Code of Conduct is the importance of informed consent, which means that the participants in the research or experiment have to give consent in order to receive any kind of treatment as part of the experiment.

While this wasn't always the case, today experiments cannot be performed on people without their consent

Example In the past, a lot of prisoners have been used in medical experiments, in psychology and other scientific fields, without their explicit consent. Simply the fact that they were prisoners was enough of a reason for some scientists to actually start conducting research on them.

c. Importance of Confidentiality

A third point is the importance of confidentiality in both therapy or in research. The privacy of the patients and the subjects should be maintained at all times.

Psychologists cannot share this information with other people or with the general public. This is especially important in therapy when trying to establish a therapeutic alliance.

If the patient knows the information isn't going anywhere, then he or she is more apt to trust the psychologist who's dealing with it.

d. Importance of Voluntary Participation

The final two points we'll discuss apply specifically to research in psychology, not so much to the clinical side.

The first of these is the importance of voluntary participation in an experiment, meaning that the subjects know beforehand exactly what they're getting into.

This goes along with informed consent, as voluntary participation also means the subjects agree to what they're going to do.

They should understand exactly what the task will be, and most importantly, they should be debriefed after they're finished with the experiment and told exactly what was being studied, how it was being studied, and why.

Sometimes deception is used as part of the experiment, meaning that the subjects are told beforehand that something different is being studied.

However, this only occurs when it's absolutely necessary for the experiment, specifically when the subjects' knowledge of what is really being studied might affect their reaction, and thus affect the results of the experiment.

e. Importance of Avoiding Harm

Finally, in that same vein, researchers should avoid inflicting any kind of physical or psychological harm on the subjects as much as possible. A subject should never be exploited or harassed in any kind of way.

Sometimes there might be a need to exert some type of small stress or physical harm, but it should be minimal (and preferably nonexistent) in any kind of psychological experiment.


In this lesson, you learned about ethics in psychological experiments and research. Like many sciences, psychology has somewhat of a history with dubious or unethical research methods, which is why having an ethical code is so important today.

You now understand that the APA Code of Conduct is considered to be the governing set of rules for psychologists in both research and clinical fields (though some rules apply to research and experimentation specifically). Five of the most important APA Code of Conduct guidelines are the importance of competence, the importance of informed consent, the importance of confidentiality, the importance of voluntary participation, and the importance of avoiding harm.

Good luck!

Source: This work is adapted from Sophia author Erick Taggart.

Terms to Know
APA Professional Code of Conduct for Psychologists

A professional code developed by the American Psychological Association to guide both researchers and therapists.


An outline of behavior that is morally right or wrong.