Chapter 3 – Ethical Research
Milgram’s Obedience Experiment
• Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments to study the phenomenon of
obedience to authority. He placed an ad in the newspaper offering to pay $4.50 to
males to participate in a study of “memory and learning”. In reality, it was an
experiment to see how much of a “shock” participants would administer to Mr.
Wallace (the “learner”) when he got a question wrong because they were told to by
• When the teachers “shocked” Mr. Wallace with about 120 volts, Mr. Wallace began
screaming in pain and eventually yelled that he wanted out.
• What if the teacher wanted to quit? This is what happened – they became visibly
upset by the “pain” Mr. Wallace was experiencing, but the scientist urged them to
continue using a specific series of verbal prods.
• Approximately 65% of the participants continued to deliver shocks all the way to
450volts. This study received a great deal of publicity and has been applied to many
instances, such as the Holocaust. But what about the ethics of this experiment?
The Belmont Report
• Current ethical guidelines for both behavioral and medical researchers have their
origins in The Belmont Report: Ethical Principles and guidelines for the Protection
of Human Subjects of Research
• This report defined principles and applications that have guided more detailed
regulations and the American Psychology Association Ethics Code.
• The three basic ethical principles are beneficence, respect for persons (autonomy),
• The associated applications of these principles are assessment of risks and benefits,
informed consent, and selection of subjects.
Assessment of Risks and Benefits
• The principle of benefice refers to the need for research to maximize benefits and
minimize any possible harmful effects of participation.
• Risk-benefit analysis – we must calculate potential risks and benefits that are
likely to result from the experiment. Ethical principals require asking whether the
research procedures have minimized risk to participants.
• Potential risks include factors such as psychological or physical harm and loss of
• The cost of not conducting the study if in fact the proposed procedure is the only
way to collect potentially valuable data can be considered.
• The benefits include direct benefits to the participants (ie. educational benefits),
material benefits (ie money), or less tangible benefits (ie. being a part of a scientific
experiment that has the potential to benefit society).
• Current regulations concerning the conduct of research with human participants
requires a risk-benefit analysis before research can be approved. Risks in Psychological Research
Some potentially stressful research procedures are as follows:
• Procedures that could cause potential harm to a participant are rare, but exist
nonetheless. Many medical procedures fall in this category (ie administering a
• The risks require that great care be taken to make them ethically acceptable and
there would need to be clear benefits of the research that would outweigh potential
• More common than physical stress is psychological stress (ie extreme fear or
anxiety imposed on the participant by the experiment – Schachter told participants
they were going to receive an extreme shock, even though they weren’t, to observe
the effects of the anxiety)
• Another form of possible stress is when researchers give unfavorable feedback
about the participants to observe the effects on their self esteem.
• Another way stress may be caused is if you ask about traumatic events of the past.
• When stress is possible, it must be asked if all safeguards have been taken to help
participants deal with the stress. Usually there is a “debriefing” following the study
that is designed to address and potential problems that may arise during the
Loss of Privacy and Confidentiality
• Researchers must take care to protect the privacy of individuals. At minimum,
identities should be protected by keeping data locked in a safe place.
• Confidentiality becomes especially important when studying sensitive subjects such
as sexual behavior, divorce, family violence, drug abuse, etc. In most cases,
responses are completely anonymous. This is the case, for example, with many
• In cases, such as personal interviews, where the identity of the individual is known,
the researcher must take special care to plan ways of coding data, storing data, and
explaining the procedures to participants so there is no question about
• In some cases, such as when individuals are studied on multiple occasions over
time, it is necessary to know the identity of the participants. In these cases,
researchers should develop ways to identify the individual but keep their identity
information separate from their data, so that if questionnaires or computerized data
was ever seen by anyone, it could not be linked to a specific individual.
• If the risk entailed with loss of confidentiality is extreme, researchers may want to
apply for a Certificate of Confidentiality from the US Department of Health and
Human Services. Obtaining this certificate if appropriate when data could be the
target of legal subpoena. • Another privacy issue concerns concealed observation of behavior. Often
researchers will make observations in public places, such as the mall, but this
becomes an issue when researchers want to observe more private circumstances,
such as observing in a public rest room or going through someone’s trash.
• Middlemist (researcher who studied time it took for the onset of urination when a
participant was alone v. the observer was beside them) employed a method for
determining whether a procedure is ethical that was first employed by Berscheid,
Baron, Dermer, and Libman. Role-playing is used to gather evidence about
participants’ perceptions of a potential experiment. If the role-playing participants
indicate that they would participate in the experiment, at least one objection to
deception has been addressed.
• The principle of respect for persons or autonomy states that participants are treated
autonomous; they are capable of making deliberate decisions about what whether or
not to participate in research.
• The application here is to informed consent – potential participants should be
provided with all information that might influence their decision of whether or not
to participate. Thus, they should be informed about the purpose of the study, the
risks, and the benefits, and their right to refuse or terminate participation at any
Informed Consent Form
• Participants usually provided with an informed consent form containing the
information needed to make their decision.
• Typically, it is printed for the participant to read and sign; it is important that they
understand the information presented to them on the form, therefore they should be
written in straightforward, common language (generally sixth to eighth grade
reading level). To facilitate understanding, the form should not be written in the
first person. Font should not be smaller than 11 points.
• If the participants’ first language is not English, a translated version of the form
should be available.
• Check figure 3.1 on page 43.
• What happens when participants lack autonomy (the ability to make free and
informed decisions to voluntarily participate) such as with minors, patients in
psychiatric hospitals, or adults with cognitive impairments.
• When a minor is participating, a consent form is signed by their guardian, in
addition to agreement from the minor, formally called assent. Separate guidelines
have been established for working with children.
• Coercion in another threat to autonomy. Any procedure that limits an individual’s
freedom to consent is considered coercion (ie. your boss asking you to fill out a
survey). Sometimes, benefits to participation are so great they become coercive (ie.
prisoners may believe increased privileges may result from participation). Information Issues: Withholding Information and Deception
• Providing all information about a study is unwise because it could potentially
invalidate the results of the study.
• Researchers usually withhold information about the hypothesis or the particular
condition they are participating in.
• It is generally acceptable to withhold info when that info would not influence their
decision to participate and when the information will later be provided, usually in a
debriefing after the study is completed.
• There are also areas of research where informed consent is not necessary – or even