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Research Ethics

Research Ethics

Author: Erick Taggart

Identify the basic ethical guidelines for researchers set forth by the American Psychological Association Code of Ethics.

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Hello, class. So today we're going to be talking about some of the ethics involved with doing research in psychology. Now, as with other sciences, psychology has a bit of a history of some dubious and unethical research, which has created problems and made it important today for us to have a solidified ethical code for how we do research.

As an example of one such experiment which might have had sort of dubious research methods and results, let's talk a little bit about the Stanford Prison Experiment. Now, this was a famous experiment that occurred in 1971, where a group of individuals-- a group of males-- was split into two 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 kinds of roles.

So the idea was they would eventually sort to fall into the role of prisoner or guard, even though they weren't originally those types of people. And the experiment actually only went on for about six days before it finally had to be aborted because it was causing so much psychological damage to the participants. And it actually even caused harm to the researchers themselves. One of the researchers, Zimbardo, was acting as the prison manager, and he himself was talking about how stressed out he was in filling his role.

So understanding these kinds of psychological-- as well as physical stresses-- that research participants are being put through is one of the important keys to understanding ethical psychological research.

Generally what we consider to be the guideline for psychological experimenting-- and in fact, also when it comes to the psychotherapy-- is the APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. And this outlines in specific form what a researcher and psychotherapists can and can't do. So let's take a look at some of these.

The first ones that we're going to talk about apply to both psychotherapy and research. The first thing that's noted under the Code of Conduct is the importance of competence with the psychologist, which is to say that the psychologist should understand what they're researching, and what the effects might be.

And this coincides with the licensing requirements for a lot of psychology jobs. A lot of the professions in psychology, even if it's a counseling job, still requires a state, a national type of certificate. These are things like private licenses. Some groups might require a masters, and in fact, a lot of private practices and clinical practices require the psychologists to have some kind of doctorate, either a Ph.D. or a Psy.D.

The second point to know under the code is the importance of informed consent, which is to say that the person who's participating has to give consent to actually receive some kind of treatment, or to be part of an experiment. For example, in the past, a lot of prisoners have been used in medical experiments, in psychology and other sciences, without their explicit consent. Simply the fact that they were a prisoner was enough of a reason for some scientists to actually start conducting research on them. And so obviously that's something that we don't do nowadays.

A third point is the importance of confidentiality in either therapy or in research. The privacy of the patients and the subjects should be maintained at all times, which is to say, you can't share their information with other people or with the general public. And this is important especially in therapy when you're trying to establish a therapeutic alliance, where you have to have a trusting relationship. If you know the information isn't going anywhere, then you're more apt to trust the psychologist who's dealing with it.

The next two points we'll talk about apply specifically to research in psychology, not so much the clinical side. And so the first one is the importance of voluntary participation in an experiment, which is to say that the subject knows what they're getting into beforehand, and along with the informed consent, they agree to what they're going to do. And which is to say, beforehand they should be told somewhat what they're going to be getting into. They should understand basically what the task will be.

And most importantly, they should be debriefed after they're finished with the experiment and told what exactly was being studied, how it was being studied, and why. Sometimes deception is used, which is to say the subject is told something different from what is actually being studied beforehand, but this is only when it's absolutely necessary for the subject. If the subject knows about it, it might affect the reaction and affect the results of the experiment.

And there should be as little to no pain, or physical or psychological harm that occurs to the subjects themselves. And finally, going along with that, the researcher should avoid any kind of physical or psychological harm as much as possible. A subject should never be exploited or harassed in any kind of way. Sometimes there might be some need to exert some kind of small stresses or physical harm, but it should be minimal to none at all in any kind of psychological experiment.

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.