From the blogs I read last week the majority seemed to view ethics as too strict, and claimed that they limit research practices unnecessarily. However I didn’t see any mention of the core reasons why these ethics are important, beyond the moral justification of it being “the right thing to do”. So in an attempt to level the playing field a little, here I am arguing that ethics rarely restrict research, and their strictness is beneficial for psychology.
Many bloggers made the point that in adhering to ethical principles we sacrifice the validity of the results, in an attempt to avoid harm to participants. It was argued that this is a poor trade off, as the as potential harm is generally minimal. An example given was the dilemma of informed consent in observations, doing so compromises the validity of the results and after all why can’t you just get the validity after observing? Well ethics is a very much a catchall system and is rather general in its terms. This prevents unethical studies from slipping through the net, which could occur with vague and less rigid ethical guidelines. So rather than explicitly listing cases when consent is needed, it simply says that you must obtain consent. But doesn’t this overly restrict research? Not at all, in reality studies can get leniency on certain guidelines if it is deemed necessary. In fact deception is used in up to 50-75% of published reports (Adair, Dushenko & Lindsay, 1985). However this can only be used if the study requires it, not just because it would make things easier for the researcher.
People give the example that Milgram’s study would never make it past ethical guidelines these days, but Milgram’s study has been replicated many times since (links included below). So as you can see rigid ethics are important for preventing ethical studies from slipping through the net but ethics can be readdressed to an extent in individual cases if it required, thus rarely restrict research.
However studies have shown that most people did not mind being deceived (http://psp.sagepub.com/content/14/4/664.abstract). If people don’t mind being deceived then what is the harm? Similarly Milgram reported that most (82%) participants reported were glad to have taken part. A few studies have shown that in general most people are largely indifferent to the matter of deception. However dissatisfaction amongst even a few participants in each study can have a big impact collectively. In the Milgram’s experiment of the forty participants, five participants weren’t glad to have participated (12%). Considering the number of studies that occur every year, this degree of dissatisfaction would be devastating to psychology as whole if it occurred regularly. Certainly these are extreme examples, but it shows how disregard for ethics can be cause dissatisfied participants. As I’m sure you’re all aware psychology has a history of controversial studies; Milgram, Harlows Monkeys, Zimbardo to name a few. These certainly are some extreme and rare cases, but I’m sure your aware of the impact that even a few extreme examples can have on the public view of psychology. Just think about which studies are best known to the public when you mention psychological research. Though I wasn’t able to find a more scientific example to illustrate my point here, Let’s just view the top 5 searches when I google “Famous psychology experiments”. Zimbardo and Milgram can be seen on all of them, with one of them being the wiki page of Milgram. Little Albert and Harlow’s monkeys amongst others can be seen. In order to move beyond this we need to ensure a sound moral code. This isn’t just important for ensuring psychology as a respectable and acknowledged science but also to ensure future research. If participants don’t feel their safety and rights as humans are important to the researchers, then they are unlikely to put themselves forward as participants. Many of last week’s posters seemed to show a higher regard for the research than the participants. A perfect example of this came from the following blog http://saspb.wordpress.com/ “it’s very easy to loose sight of the fact that the research findings are what’s most important here and if it means deceiving someone a little or not getting their signature on a piece of paper maybe its worth it”. To saspb Just to make it clear I’m not picking on you personally. Similar remarks were made by a number of bloggers, yours just best typifies this attitude. The research is incredibly important, but without participants there is no research.
To conclude, hopefully I’ve shown the need for ethics and that they aren’t as restrictive they sometimes seem. Below I have included some links to some Milgram replications.
Links to replications of Milgram: