The Process of Conducting Ethical Research in Psychology

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Earlier in psychology history, many experiments were performed with highly questionable and even outrageous violations of ethical considerations. Milgram's infamous obedience experiment, for example, involved deceiving human subjects into believing that they were delivering painful, possibly even life-threatening, electrical shocks to another person.

These controversial psychology experiments played a major role in the development of the ethical guidelines and regulations that psychologists must abide by today. When performing studies or experiments that involve human participants, psychologists must submit their proposal to an institutional review board (IRB) for approval. ​These committees help ensure that experiments conform to ethical and legal guidelines.

Ethical codes, such as those established by the American Psychological Association, are designed to protect the safety and best interests of those who participate in psychological research. Such guidelines also protect the reputations of psychologists, the field of psychology itself and the institutions that sponsor psychology research.

Ethical Guidelines for Research With Human Subjects

When determining ethical guidelines for research, most experts agree that the cost of conducting the experiment must be weighed against the potential benefit to society the research may provide. While there is still a great deal of debate about ethical guidelines, there are some key components that should be followed when conducting any type of research with human subjects.

Participation Must Be Voluntary

All ethical research must be conducted using willing participants. Study volunteers should not feel coerced, threatened or bribed into participation. This becomes especially important for researchers working at universities or prisons, where students and inmates are often encouraged to participate in experiments.

Researchers Must Obtain Informed Consent

Informed consent is a procedure in which all study participants are told about procedures and informed of any potential risks. Consent should be documented in written form. Informed consent ensures that participants know enough about the experiment to make an informed decision about whether or not they want to participate.

Obviously, this can present problems in cases where telling the participants the necessary details about the experiment might unduly influence their responses or behaviors in the study. The use of deception in psychology research is allowed in certain instances, but only if the study would be impossible to conduct without the use of deception, if the research will provide some sort of valuable insight and if the subjects will be debriefed and informed about the study's true purpose after the data has been collected.

Researchers Must Maintain Participant Confidentiality

Confidentiality is an essential part of any ethical psychology research. Participants need to be guaranteed that identifying information and individual responses will not be shared with anyone who is not involved in the study.

While these guidelines provide some ethical standards for research, each study is different and may present unique challenges. Because of this, most colleges and universities have a Human Subjects Committee or Institutional Review Board that oversees and grants approval for any research conducted by faculty members or students. These committees provide an important safeguard to ensure academic research is ethical and does not pose a risk to study participants.

1 Source
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  1. American Psychological Association. Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.