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Ethical Issues and Ways of Dealing with Them

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Ethical Issues and Ways of Dealing with Them

Often researchers don’t reveal the purpose of a study in order to get a more ‘natural’ reaction from the participants. But is this right? If we are essentially lying to participants to get valid research, are we behaving ethically? For instance, if we tell someone they’ve failed a test to study the effects of failure, we are causing them psychological distress. Is this acceptable? These are some of the questions that arise when we discuss ethical issues in psychology.

Ethical issues in psychology and their importance

Ethical issues in psychology arise when there is a conflict between the rights of the participants in a research study and the goals of research to produce authentic, valid, and worthwhile data.

Ethical issues are relevant to everyone involved in the process of psychological research. Whether a practitioner or consumer of psychological services, each individual needs to be aware of the role that ethical guidelines play in directing the application of psychology to the problems of the real world.

As a psychology student, it is important for you to think about the ethical implications of different experiments and studies throughout your study of psychology. Understanding ethical issues means you can do a critique on ethical grounds and use cost-benefit arguments (i.e., is the ethical cost outweighed by the benefits of the research?). This doesn't mean, however, that criticising a study and its ethical implications renders it meaningless.

Ethical Issues and Ways of Dealing with Them Ethical issues in psychology research StudySmarterEthical issues in psychology research, Yzabelle Bostyn, StudySmarter Originals

Cost-benefit analysis

Evaluating the costs and benefits of a psychological study is fundamental today. We want to make sure that what we do brings more benefits to humanity in the long run. That is why today we have Ethics committees in every university and research centre. Ethics committees must weigh up the costs and benefits of research proposals to decide whether a research study should go ahead or not.

Some benefits of a study could be the value or potential ground-breaking nature of the research. Costs might be the damaging effect of the research on participants, or on the reputation of psychological studies as a whole.

Four major ethical issues in research

Most of the ethical issues that arise in a psychological study can come from four different principles.

Informed consent

Participants should know what they're going into when it comes to research. Informed consent consists, therefore, in telling people the aims of the research, and its procedures. Also, making sure they know their rights, including the right to withdraw at any point. After giving this information to the àrticipants, they can make an informed decision about whether they want to take part in the study or not.

Sometimes, researchers think that informed consent makes their research pointless because they're not getting a natural reaction from the participant.

Ethical Issues and Ways of Dealing with Them Letter of consent StudySmarterA letter of consent, Yzabelle Bostyn, StudySmarter Originals

Avoiding deception

Similar to informed consent, the issue of deception arises when a participant has not been adequately informed about the study or has been deliberately lied to about it. The participant couldn't have truly consented if they were misled about what was going to happen.

Although deception can be problematic, there are cases in which it doesn’t lead to distress for the participant.

In a study about energy drinks, it would be legitimate not to tell participants that another group was drinking a different drink because this could cause a change in participants’ behaviour.

Protection from harm

Participants should not be at any more risk of harm than they are in their daily lives. They shouldn't be subject to physical or psychological harm.

Psychological harm includes being made to feel embarrassed or inadequate or being placed under stress or pressure. An important part of this is making sure participants know they can withdraw themselves at any point, even part-way through the study. An ethical issue that can arise from this is that even though participants know that they can withdraw at any point, the researcher is a figure of authority, which might make it harder for the participant to make the decision.

Privacy and confidentiality

Participants have the right to privacy and confidentiality. The right to privacy is the ability to control personal information about yourself. Confidentiality is the right to have any personal data protected.

Confidentiality is enshrined under the Data Protection Act. Participants in a study are normally given numbers or codes so that they can not be identifiable when it comes to analysing the data collected.

Ways of dealing with ethical issues in research

Psychologists and ethics committees have come up with different Ways of dealing with ethical issues that might arise in psychological research. Let's explore them briefly.

BPS code of ethics and conduct

The BPS code of ethics and conduct is a quasi-legal document produced by the British Psychological Society (BPS). It instructs psychologists in the UK about what behaviours are and aren’t acceptable when dealing with participants. It also provides a set of ethical guidelines and is built around four major principles: respect, competence, responsibility, and integrity. Researchers have a professional duty to follow these and could lose their job if they don’t.

The guidelines are closely linked to the four major issues discussed in this article and ensure people are treated with respect and dignity.

They are implemented by ethics committees that use a cost-benefit approach to determine whether specific research proposals are ethically viable.

This Code of Human Research Ethics is founded on a set of general principles that are applicable to all research contexts and are intended to cover all research with human participants [...] Ethical researchers prioritize respect for the rights and dignity of participants in their research and also consider legitimate interests of stakeholders such as funders, institutions, sponsors and public.
BPS Code of Human Research Ethics.

Dealing with informed consent

Participants have to sign a consent letter that details all relevant information about the study before they can take part. This is called briefing and it’s an important communication tool to avoid ethical issues. For children under 16, a parent or guardian has to sign.

Dealing with deception and protection from harm

At the end of the study, participants should be informed of the true aims of the study and any details they were not previously aware of (e.g., other groups or experimental conditions). This is called debriefing and it’s another important communication tool to avoid ethical issues in psychological studies.

They should also be told where the research will be shared and have the right to withhold the data if they so wish. This is important if retrospective consent is a feature of the study.

Participants should also be assured that their behavior was normal, and if they have suffered psychologically due to stress or embarrassment, they should be provided with counselling.

Dealing with confidentiality issues

Usually, researchers maintain anonymity and instead refer to participants using numbers. In a case study, they normally use initials or pseudonyms.

During briefing and debriefing, participants should be informed that their personal details will remain confidential.

Ethical Issues and Ways of Dealing with them - Key takeaways

  • Ethical issues arise when there is a conflict between the rights of participants in research studies and the goals of research to produce authentic, valid, and worthwhile data.

  • It is important to consider the ethical issues of research to ensure we respect the participants and to ensure the best quality of research.

  • The BPS is a quasi-legal document produced by the British Psychological Society (BPS) that instructs psychologists in the UK about what behavior is and is not acceptable when dealing with participants.

  • The four major ethical issues are informed consent, deception, protection from harm, and privacy and confidentiality.

  • Briefing, debriefing, and upholding the right to withdraw consent throughout are the best ways of dealing with ethical issues.

Frequently Asked Questions about Ethical Issues and Ways of Dealing with Them

Ethical issues are the term we use to describe any conflicts that exist between the rights of participants in research studies and the goals of research to produce authentic, valid, and worthwhile data.

The four major ethical issues are informed consent, deception, protection from harm, and privacy and confidentiality issues.

The best way of dealing with these issues is by briefing and debriefing (a thorough level of communication with the participant before and after the study, by the end of which they should know absolutely everything that happened to them.) It is also very important to uphold the right to withdraw from the study at any time, even during it.

An ethical issue in a psychological study might be not telling the participants the full scope of the study to get a more natural reaction. 

You can identify an ethical issue in a psychological study when there is a dilemma or contradiction between respecting the participants and getting good research. 

Final Ethical Issues and Ways of Dealing with Them Quiz

Question

How should a researcher aim to act towards participants if they want to be ehitcal?

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Answer

 It helps us act with respect and helps us treat them with dignity.

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Question

If some research is criticised for not being ethical, it is rendered meaningless.

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Answer

 False

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Who are ethical issues relevant to? Who should think about them?


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Answer

 It is important for everyone involved in studies to understand their ethical implications. This includes both researchers and participants.

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What is an ethical issue?


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Ethical issues arise when a conflict exists between the rights of participants in research studies and the goals of research to produce authentic, valid, and worthwhile data.

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Question

What is the BPS code of ethics and conduct?


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Answer

The BPS is a quasi-legal document produced by the British Psychological Society (BPS) that instructs psychologists in the UK about what behavior is and is not acceptable when dealing with participants.

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What are the four principles around which the BPS is based?


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Answer

Respect, competence, responsibility, and integrity.

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Question

What is informed consent?


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Answer

Informed consent is telling participants the aims of the research, and its procedures. Also, making sure they know their rights, including the right to withdraw at any point. Then, participants can make an informed decision about whether they want to take part or not.

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Question

Why might researchers have a problem with telling participants everything that's going to happen before they carry out the study?


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Answer

Because they could feel this will cause the participants to react unnaturally.

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What is the issue of deception?


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Deception is where a participant has agreed to do a study based on false information. When information has been withheld, or they've been deliberately lied to in order to get them to do the study.

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Question

Select which example below would be an example of when deception is acceptable. 


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Answer

In a study about energy drinks, it would be legitimate not to tell participants that another group was drinking a different drink because this could cause a change in participants behavior.  

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Question

Participants should be protected from physical and psychological harm throughout the study. What does psychological harm include?


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Answer

 Psychological harm includes being made to feel embarrassed or inadequate or being placed under stress or pressure.

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Question

A child under 16 cannot sign a letter of consent.


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Answer

True

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Why should participants be provided with counselling after a study if necessary?


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Answer

Sometimes studies make participants feel unduly stressed or embarrassed, and often they will feel that their reactions weren't normal. Counseling can help with these difficult emotions.

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What happens if a researcher fails to follow the BPS?


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Answer

 Researchers have a professional duty to follow the BPS and could lose their job if they don't. This could also risk tarnishing the reputation of that whole field of psychology.

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Question

Do researchers usually use participants’ names?


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Answer

No, anonymity is usually used throughout. Normally, they use numbers to refer to participants, and initials for case studies.

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