Chapter 3 – Ethical Research
Ethical concerns are very important when conducting 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 authority.
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 1) beneficence, 2) respect for persons (autonomy), and 3) justice.
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 beneficence in the Belmont Report refers to the need for research to maximize benefits
and minimize any possible harmful effects of participation.
Risk-benefit analysis – In decisions about the ethics of research, we must calculate potential risks and
benefits that are likely to result. 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 confidentiality.
The cost of not conducting the study, if in fact the proposed procedure is the only way to collect
potentially valuable data, can also 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
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 drug)
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 risks.
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 didn’t, to observe the effects of the anxiety during the waiting period)
Another form of potential psychological stress is when participants are given unfavorable feedback about
their personalities or abilities
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 session following the study that is designed to address any
potential problems that may arise during the research.
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 questionnaires.
In some 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 confidentiality.
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
Middlemist (researcher who studied time it took for the onset of urination when a participant was alone
vs. 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 Belmont Report’s principle of respect for persons or autonomy states that participants are treated
autonomous; they are capable of making deliberate decisions about whether or not to participate in
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 time.
Informed Consent Form:
Participants are 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 it should be written fairly straightforward (generally
sixth to eighth grade reading level). To facilitate understanding, the form should not be written in the first
person. The 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
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, the benefits to
participation are so great that they become coercive (ie. prisoners may believe increased privileges may
result from participation).
Information Issues - Withholding Information and Deception:
ethical concerns are very important when conducting research. 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 . 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 authority. when the teachers shocked mr. wallace with about 120 volts, mr. wallace began screaming in pain and eventually yelled that he wanted out. 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.