Ethical Issues and Ways of Dealing with Them

Often researchers don’t reveal the purpose of a study to get a more ‘natural’ reaction from the participants. But is this right? If we lie 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. Let’s look at ethical issues and ways of dealing with them in psychology.

Ethical Issues and Ways of Dealing with Them Ethical Issues and Ways of Dealing with Them

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Table of contents

    Ethical Issues and Ways of Dealing with Them, Content warning regarding sensitive topics discussed, StudySmarter

    • We will start by looking at the ethical issues definition and ethical issues in psychology.
    • Then we will look at how ethical issues in research are handled.
    • Moving on, we will explore some ethical issue examples in the context of previous psychological research.
    • Finally, we will look back into the history of ethics in psychology.

    Ethical Issues: Definition

    Ethical issues in psychology arise when the research being conducted may impose some form of physical or psychological harm on the participants or the general population. Psychologists and ethics committees have devised different ways of dealing with ethical issues that might occur in psychological research.

    Ethical Issues and Ways of Dealing with Them, silhouettes of different heads, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Ethical issues need to be considered and addressed in psychological research.

    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 ethical guidelines 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.

    Ethics committees acknowledge if research can go ahead based on a cost-benefit approach to determine whether specific research proposals are ethically viable.

    Ethical Issues in Psychology

    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, you must consider the ethical implications of different experiments and studies.

    Understanding ethical issues mean you can do a critique on moral grounds and use cost-benefit arguments (i.e., is the ethical cost outweighed by the benefits of the research?).

    However, ethical issues in research don’t mean that criticising a study and its ethical implications renders it meaningless.

    Evaluating the costs and benefits of a psychological study is fundamental today. We want to ensure that what we do brings more benefits to humanity in the long run. Ethics committees weigh 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 research’s value or potential ground-breaking nature. Costs might be the research’s damaging effect on participants or the reputation of psychological studies.

    History of Ethics in Psychology

    The ethical issues and ways of dealing with them have come a long way since the beginning of psychology.

    During the origins of psychology, ethical issues were of little to no concern. When psychology was not recognised as an independent discipline, the focus was on establishing the subject. Back then, few efforts were put into ensuring participants’ safety or the long-term effects the research could have on the participant’s health.

    Some examples of ethical issues that were often breached when ethical issues were not established include:

    • Intentional psychological harm.
    • Deception.
    • Occasional physical harm (Zimbardo had to end his study prematurely due to the psychological toll and physical harm that participants endured).

    Watson and Rayner (1970) conducted ground-breaking research that supported the laws and principles of classical conditioning. The study aimed to identify if an infant could learn a phobia (just from this, you can probably see what the issues of this study are).

    Whenever Little Albert reached out to touch a little rat, the researchers sounded a loud bang which frightened him. Over time, Albert stopped reaching out for the rat because he learned a fear association between the old noise and the rat.

    What are the ethical issues of the Watson and Rayner research?

    • Intentional psychological harm, which is even more crucial as the study occurred during his early development stages.
    • He is a child, so although his parents can consent, he cannot; it is also difficult for him to voice his concerns and withdraw from the study.
    • Finally, anonymity remained an issue.

    Ethical Issues: Examples

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

    Participants should know what they’re going into when it comes to research. Informed consent consists, therefore, in telling people the aims of the study and its procedures.

    It is difficult to get proper informed consent from certain social groups e.g. children or those with mental illnesses or disabilities.

    Also, ensuring they know their rights, including the right to withdraw at any point during and after the experiment. After giving this information to the participants, they can make an informed decision about whether they want to participate in the study.

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

    Like informed consent, deception arises when a participant has not been adequately informed about the study or the researchers deliberately lied about it. The participant couldn’t have truly consented if misled about what would 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.

    Participants should not be more at risk of harm than they are in their daily lives. Another ethical issue example is that participants shouldn’t be subject to physical or psychological harm.

    Psychological harm includes feeling embarrassed, inadequate or stressed or pressured before or after a study.

    An important part is ensuring participants know they can withdraw 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.

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

    Ethical Issues in Research

    Participants must sign a consent letter detailing all relevant information about the study before they can participate. This is called briefing, an important communication tool to avoid ethical issues. For children under 16, a parent or guardian has to sign.

    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). Debriefing is 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 wish. This is important if retrospective consent is a feature of the study.

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

    Usually, researchers maintain anonymity and instead refer to participants using numbers.

    In a case study, they normally use initials or pseudonyms. And during briefing and debriefing, participants should be informed that their details will remain confidential.

    Ethical issues in animal research are essential. They do not receive the same standards as humans; however, animal research is becoming less common due to ethical issues and animal rights concerns.

    Ethical isses and ways of dealing with them, rat in a cage, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Animal research is only conducted when there is no other alternative to research the phenomenon.

    Ethical Issues and Ways of Dealing with them - Key takeaways

    • The ethical issues definition is the BPS code of ethics and conduct, a quasi-legal document produced by the British Psychological Society (BPS). It instructs psychologists in the UK about what behaviours are and isn’t acceptable when dealing with participants.

    • Ethical issues in research use tools to prevent ethical issues from being debriefed, such as briefing, debriefing, and upholding the right to withdraw consent throughout, which are the best ways of dealing with ethical issues.

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

    • The history of ethics in psychology has come a long way since the discipline’s origins.

    • Ethical issues examples of research that has breached ethical issues include Zimbardo and Watson, and Rayner.

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

    What do ethical issues mean?

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

    What are the 5 ethical issues

    The main ethical issues in psychology are informed consent, deception, protection from psychological and physical harm, and privacy and confidentiality issues.

    How do we deal with ethical issues in research?

    The best way to deal with ethical issues in research is by briefing and debriefing, giving participants the right to withdraw and maintaining confidentiality.  

    What are examples of ethical issues?

    Some ethical issues examples are not telling the participants the full scope of the study to get a more natural reaction, not maintaining participant confidentiality and causing psychological or physical harm. 

    How do you identify ethical issues?

    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. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

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

    Which example below would be an example of when deception is acceptable. 

    A child under 16 cannot sign a letter of consent. True or false?

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