Issues in Psychology

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The topic of ethical issues was explored in your AS level studies. It is not our intention to cover the same material again but, instead, to consider some wider ethical issues in relation to what is acceptable in psychological research.

A summary of the British Psychological Society Ethical Guidelines for Research with Human Participants is given on pages 714–715 of A2 Level Psychology. The full guidelines are available from the British psychological society’s website (link below). Before looking at the guidelines you should try the two research activities below to review your familiarity with ethical issues.

Activity: Ethical issues 1

Activity: Ethical issues 2

Weblink: The British Psychological Society

Ethics in Psychological Research

To begin, we will outline some of the issues raised by major studies in psychology.


Milgram’s (1963, 1974) research on obedience to authority was carried out in the days before most institutions had ethical committees responsible for ensuring the ethical acceptability of all research. He asked his participants to administer very strong (and possibly lethal) electric shocks to someone who was said to suffer from a heart condition. It is very unlikely that an ethical committee would permit an experimenter to carry out the type of research done by Milgram, which explains why very few such studies have been undertaken in recent years.

Milgram’s research failed to fulfil some criteria now regarded as very important. First, the participants were deceived about key aspects of the study, such as the fact that the other person didn’t actually receive any shocks, and so they didn’t give full informed consent. Second, when any of the participants said they wanted to leave the experiment or to stop giving electric shocks, they were told that they had to continue with the experiment. Nowadays it is standard practice to make it clear to participants that they have the right to withdraw from the experiment at any time without providing an explanation. Third, the procedures used by Milgram caused considerable distress to many of the participants. However, Milgram’s research did provide us with important insights into obedience to authority.


Zimbardo’s (1973) Stanford prison experiment is another study from many years ago that raises considerable ethical issues. In this study, a mock prison was set up with mock guards and mock prisoners. Some mock guards behaved very aggressively, causing four of the mock prisoners to be released because of “extreme depression, disorganised thinking, uncontrollable crying and fits of rage”. Savin (1973) compared Zimbardo to used-car salesmen and others “whose roles tempt them to be as obnoxious as the law allows”. He concluded that:

Professors who . . . deceive, humiliate, and otherwise mistreat their students, are subverting the atmosphere of mutual trust and intellectual honesty without which, as we are fond of telling outsiders who want to meddle in our affairs, neither education nor free inquiry can flourish.

Zimbardo (1973) pointed out that all his participants had signed a formal informed consent form, which indicated that there would be an invasion of privacy, loss of some civil rights, and harassment. However, it could be argued this wasn’t full informed consent because the participants didn’t anticipate how harrowing their experiences were going to be. Zimbardo also noted that day-long debriefing sessions were held with the participants, so that they could understand the moral conflicts being studied. However, Zimbardo failed to protect his participants from physical and mental harm. It was entirely predictable that the mock guards would attack the mock prisoners, because that is exactly what had happened in a pilot study that Zimbardo carried out before the main study.


A well-known example of research involving deception is the work of Asch (1951, 1956). He gave participants the task of deciding which one of three lines was equal in length to a standard line. This task was done in groups of between four and 11 people, all but one of whom were “stooge” participants working under instructions from the experimenter. The participants gave their judgements one at a time with the genuine participant giving his/her opinion last. On key trials, all the stooge participants gave the same wrong answer. The aim of the experiment was to see whether the genuine participants would conform to group pressure, which happened on about one-third of the trials. If the participants had been told the experiment was designed to study conformity to group pressure, and that all the other participants were stooges of the experimenter (i.e., they had given full informed consent), then this important study would have been pointless.


Rosenhan (1973) carried out a controversial study in which eight normal people tried to gain admission to 12 different psychiatric hospitals by complaining of hearing indistinct voices that seemed to be saying “empty”, “hollow”, and “thud”. This led to seven of them being diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia. After these eight normal people were admitted to psychiatric wards, they all said they felt fine, and that they no longer had any symptoms. However, it took an average of 19 days before they were discharged. In a second study, Rosenhan told the staff at a psychiatric hospital that one or more pseudo-patients (normal individuals pretending to have schizophrenic symptoms) would try to gain admittance to the hospital. No pseudo-patients actually appeared, but 41 genuine patients were judged with great confidence to be pseudo-patients.

These two studies raise several ethical issues. First, in both studies professionals were deliberately misled about the true status of patients (and thus didn’t give full informed consent). This deception is no more ethically justified than deception of patients or participants in a study. Second, there is the welfare of the genuine patients in the second study. It would have been possible for a patient who was exhibiting normal behaviour but was actually suffering from a mental disorder to have been mistakenly discharged from psychiatric care.

Ethical Issues with Human Participants

According to Kelman (1972, p.993), “Most ethical problems arising in social research can be traced to the subject’s power deficiency.” More specifically, the experimenter is often a person of fairly high status (such as a university researcher or professor), and he/she has expertise and knowledge about the experimental situation not shared by the participant. When an experiment takes place in the laboratory, the experimenter has the advantage of being on “home ground”, and the setting is almost entirely under his/her control. In addition, the acceptance of scientific research as an activity that is valued by society also enhances the position of power enjoyed by the experimenter.

Resolving ethical issues

What can be done to resolve the ethical issues that arise from the fact that participants typically have a power deficiency relative to the experimenter? Of crucial importance is the provision of ethical guidelines that must be followed by all researchers (see the summary of the British Psychological Society’s ethical guidelines for conducting research on human participants on pages 714–715 of A2 Level Psychology). Kimmel (1996) compared the ethical codes or guidelines produced by 11 different countries. There are important similarities among the ethical codes produced by the various countries. Most focus on three basic principles:

  1. Protection of individuals from physical harm

  2. Protection of individuals from psychological harm

  3. Confidentiality of the data obtained from individual participants.

There is fairly general agreement that full informed consent and avoidance of deception are important in ensuring that the first two principles are achieved. However, it is sometimes difficult to do this. Small children and patients with certain mental disorders may be unable to provide informed consent, in which case it is usual for a close relative to do so. The notion that deception should always be avoided in psychological research is too stringent, because it ignores the fact that many forms of deception are entirely harmless. For example, some memory researchers are interested in incidental learning, which involves people’s ability to remember information they weren’t asked to remember. This can only be done by deceiving participants as to the true purpose of the experiment until the memory test is presented.

Case study: Drawing Santa Claus

When is deception justified? There is no simple answer. Various relevant factors need to be taken into account. First, the less potentially damaging the consequences of the deception, the more likely it is to be acceptable. Second, it is easier to justify the use of deception in studies that are important in scientific terms than in those that are trivial. Third, deception is more justifiable when there are no alternative, deception-free ways of studying an issue.

Ethical issues are resolved by ethical committees as well as by the use of ethical guidelines. Nowadays the great majority of universities and research units have their own ethical committees to consider all proposed research, and the same is true of hospitals in which research takes place. Finally, professional organisations in most countries (e.g., the American Psychological Association in America, the British Psychological Society in the UK) will investigate potentially serious ethical issues that arise in the course of research.

  • Ask yourself: To what extent do ethical guidelines protect participants in psychological research?

Socially Sensitive Research

As we have seen, ethical guidelines focus mainly on the well-being and protection of those who participate in experiments. However, much research raises issues of relevance to society as a whole. As a result, psychologists need to be concerned about broader ethical issues. This is true of nearly all psychological research, but is especially true of socially sensitive research. This was defined by Sieber and Stanley (1988, p.49) as:

studies in which there are potential social consequences or implications either directly for the participants in research or the class of individuals represented by the research.

Socially sensitive research can produce risks for many people other than those directly involved as participants. Among the non-participants at risk, according to Sieber and Stanley, are the following:

  • Members of the groups (e.g., racial, religious) to which the participants belong

  • People closely associated with the participants (e.g., family, friends)

  • The experimenter or experimenters

  • The research institution to which the experimenter or experimenters belong.

We can consider a concrete example of non-participants being at risk. McCosker et al. (2001) discussed their research involving interviews with women who had been abused. The interviews were often distressing for the interviewer as well as for the woman being interviewed. In addition, there were transcribers who had the task of typing up what had been said in the interviews. Transcribers often became distressed, and so arrangements had to be made for them to have immediate access to crisis counselling if required.

  • Ask yourself: Which are more important, the interests of the individual or the interests of society as a whole?

In their thorough discussion of socially sensitive research, Sieber and Stanley (1988) argued that important ethical concerns can arise with respect to four major aspects of such research:

  1. Deciding on the research question or hypothesis to be tested

  2. The conduct of research and the treatment of participants

  3. The institutional context (e.g., the organisation in which the research is carried out might make unjustified use of the findings)

  4. Interpretation and application of research findings, especially the application of findings in ways far removed from the experimenter’s intentions.

What are the kinds of problems that can occur in each of these aspects of research? We have already discussed at some length issues relating to the conduct of research and the treatment of participants in your AS book. Accordingly, we will focus on the other three aspects here.

The research question

The first part of the research process involves deciding on the question or questions that the research is designed to answer. Simply asking certain questions can pose ethical issues. For example, suppose that a researcher asks the question, “Are there racial differences in intelligence?”, and decides to answer it in a study. It is likely (but not certain) that he/she assumes that there are racial differences in intelligence, and that this assumption is motivating the research. In similar fashion, most researchers who carry out twin studies to decide the extent to which criminality is inherited probably assume that genetic factors are important. The very fact that this issue is being investigated may cause concern to the relatives of criminals.

Find out more: Application of findings

Lee (1993) argued that there are three main types of issues raising concerns about sensitivity. First, there are issues that are private or stressful (e.g., sexuality, death). Second, there are issues associated with stigmatisation or fear (e.g., focusing on illegal behaviour). Third, there are issues relating to the presence of political threat (e.g., various controversial topics).

The institutional context

The institutional context can pose ethical issues in at least two ways. First, if the institutional context is perceived to be prestigious or intimidating, it may make the participants feel powerless and thus affect their behaviour. This happened in the work of Milgram (1974), in which he studied obedience to authority in the form of a willingness to administer very strong electric shocks. When the research setting was Yale University, 65% of the participants were fully obedient. This figure dropped to 48% when the setting was a run-down office building. Second, when research is carried out in a company, there can be various ethical problems with respect to the ways in which those running the company use the findings. For example, suppose that a researcher finds that the average stress levels in a company are only moderate. This may lead the company to abandon plans to offer stress counselling to their workers.

Interpretation and application

No one doubts that researchers should be concerned about the ways in which their findings are interpreted and applied. However, we need to distinguish between those uses of research findings that are predictable and those that are not. For example, it was predictable that the National Front and other organisations of the extreme right would use findings of racial differences in intelligence for their own ends. However, researchers studying the effects of sleep deprivation could not reasonably have expected that their findings would be used in brainwashing and cult indoctrination.

Eyewitness testimony

By now, you may have decided that socially sensitive research should be avoided altogether. However, some socially sensitive research is wholly desirable and of real benefit to society. Consider, for example, research on eyewitness testimony (from your AS studies). This research has shown convincingly that the memories of eyewitnesses for events are fragile and easily distorted. An implication is that defendants shouldn’t be found guilty solely on the basis of eyewitness identification. However, in the United States in 1973, there were nearly 350 cases in which eyewitness identification was the only evidence of guilt. In 74% of these cases, the defendant was convicted. The problems of relying solely on eyewitness testimony have been shown very clearly now that DNA testing is available. In the United States alone, about 80 people who were found guilty on the basis of eyewitness testimony have been freed on the basis of DNA evidence that proved they had not committed the crime of which they were found guilty.

As a result of psychological research, courts and juries are less impressed by eyewitness testimony than they used to be. However, there was a time when such research was ignored. The Devlin Report on Evidence of Identification in Criminal Cases was published in the United Kingdom in 1976. One of its main conclusions was as follows:

The stage seems not yet to have been reached at which the conclusions of psychological research are sufficiently widely accepted or tailored to the needs of the judicial process to become the basis for procedural change.

Socially sensitive research: Yes or no?

There is some evidence that socially sensitive research (at least in the United States) is more likely than non-sensitive research to be rejected by institutional ethical committees. Ceci, Peters, and Plotkin. (1985) found that the rejection rate was about twice as great. Thus, it seems important to consider arguments for and against socially sensitive research, as we do next.
Defending socially sensitive research

The case in favour of socially sensitive research was made by Scarr (1988, p.56). She argued as follows:

Science is in desperate need of good studies that highlight race and gender variables . . . to inform us of what we need to do to help underrepresented people to succeed in this society. Unlike the ostrich, we cannot afford to hide our heads for fear of socially uncomfortable discoveries.

Scarr made another important point, arguing that there are very good reasons why most ethical guidelines focus much more on the protection of the participants in experiments than on the protection of the groups to which they belong. In essence, researchers can usually predict fairly accurately the direct effects of their experiment on the participants. However, they are unlikely to be able to predict the indirect effects on the groups to which the participants belong until the outcomes of the experiment are known.

McCosker et al. (2001) argued that much socially sensitive research is important and desirable provided that adequate safeguards are built into the research. In their own research, they studied women who had been abused. Those involved in interviewing the participants were very carefully trained in counselling techniques and in developing the ability to detect signs of distress in the participants at an early stage. More generally, much socially sensitive research can be defended provided that the researchers possess the skills and sensitivity to ensure that the well-being of the participants is not adversely affected.

Opposing socially sensitive research

One argument against socially sensitive research is that the very fact that certain socially sensitive issues are being studied by psychologists can suggest to society at large that these issues are real and important. For example, the fact that psychologists have compared the intelligence of different races implies that there are racial differences, and that intelligence exists and can be measured.

Socially sensitive research can be used to justify various forms of discrimination against individuals or groups. In the most extreme cases, the findings of psychological studies have even been used to produce discriminatory changes in the laws and regulations within a given society. Thus, the findings of socially sensitive research can be used to justify new (and often unwarranted) forms of social control.

  • Ask yourself: Which different groups of people do you think might face prejudice and discrimination because of findings of socially sensitive research?

A case in point occurred in the United States when intelligence tests were developed in the early years of the twentieth century. Between 1910 and 1920, several American states passed laws designed to prevent certain categories of people (including those of low intelligence) from having children. Psychologists often exerted pressure to have these laws passed. For example, the prominent Californian psychologist Lewis Terman (1916) argued as follows: “If we would preserve our state for a class of people worthy to possess it, we must prevent, as far as possible, the propagation of mental degenerates.”

  • Ask yourself: Who controls what is acceptable behaviour? Should an individual’s behaviour be modified to conform to cultural standards?

As a result of Terman’s views, and those of other psychologists, a Californian law of 1918 required all compulsory sterilisations to be approved by a board including “a clinical psychologist holding the degree of PhD”. In similar fashion, pressure by psychologists helped to persuade the state of Iowa to legislate in 1913 for “the prevention of the procreation of criminals, rapists, idiots, feeble-minded, imbeciles, lunatics, drunkards, drug fiends, epileptics, syphilitics, moral and sexual perverts, and diseased and degenerate persons”.

Few, if any, psychologists nowadays would agree with the introduction of such harsh measures. However, some psychologists in the second half of the twentieth century argued that psychological principles should be used for purposes of social control. For example, B.F. Skinner claimed that we can determine and control people’s behaviour by providing the appropriate rewards at the appropriate times: “Operant conditioning shapes behaviour as a sculptor shapes a lump of clay.” Skinner (1948), in his novel Walden Two, described the use of operant conditioning to create an ideal society. He envisaged a high degree of external control in this society, with children being raised mainly by child rearing professionals, and government being by self-perpetuating committees rather than by elected representatives. In a sense, behavioural methods of treatment for abnormal behaviour do exert this kind of control (see the Psychopathology chapters in A2 Level Psychology).


We have considered several advantages and disadvantages of socially sensitive research. It is important to strike a balance. The American Psychological Association tried to do this in its Ethical principles in the conduct of research with human participants (1982, p.74):

On one side is an obligation to research participants who may not wish to see derogatory information . . . published about their valued groups. On the other side is an obligation to publish findings one believes relevant to scientific progress, an objective that in the investigator’s views will contribute to the eventual understanding and amelioration of social and personal problems.

Socially Sensitive Research Areas

There are many examples of socially sensitive research areas. Some of the more important ones include race-related research, research on “alternative” sexuality, and research on social and cultural diversity.

Race-related research

The best known (or most notorious) race-related research in psychology has focused on racial differences in intelligence, especially between black and white people in the United States (see A2 Level Psychology Chapter 8, Intelligence and Learning). Our concern here is with the ethical issues involved. First we will consider the arguments in favour of carrying out such research followed by the arguments against permitting such research to be done.

One of the main arguments in favour of race-related research is that researchers should be free to carry out whatever research seems important to them. If governments start passing laws to prohibit certain kinds of research, then there is a real danger that research will be stopped for political rather than for ethical reasons. What about the ethics of publishing the findings of race-related research that may be used by racists for their own unacceptable purposes? H.J. Eysenck (1981, pp.167–168) argued that:

it should not be assumed that those who feel that they have a duty to society to make known the results of empirical work are guided by less lofty ethical aspirations than those who hold the opposite view . . . the obvious social problem produced by the existence of racial and class differences in ability can only be solved, alleviated or attenuated by greater knowledge . . . it is ethically indefensible to refrain from acquiring such knowledge and making it available to society.

One of the strongest arguments against race-related research into intelligence is that the findings are often based on faulty research methods and are used in unacceptable ways. For example, Goddard (1913) gave intelligence tests to immigrants arriving in New York. He claimed that his findings demonstrated that 87% of Russians, 83% of Jews, 80% of Hungarians, and 79% of Italians were “feeble-minded”. Goddard reached this ludicrous conclusion by ignoring the obvious fact that most of these immigrants had a very limited command of the English language.

Subsequent work on immigrant soldiers in the United States seemed to confirm Goddard’s findings, while also showing that immigrants from Great Britain and Scandinavia performed better. These various findings were used by the American government in 1924 to introduce national origin quotas to reduce the level of immigration from southern and eastern Europe.

A second argument against much race-related research is that it is almost meaningless given the fact that black and white people in the United States do not form biological groups. It is also fairly pointless, because it is impossible to discover for certain precisely why there are race differences in intelligence. Another argument is that such research doesn’t possess any particular scientific interest, in that it offers no prospect of shedding light on the processes and mechanisms involved in intelligence. If it could be shown that all racial differences in intelligence are due to environmental factors, this would tell us nothing about the different problem-solving strategies used by those high and low in intelligence.

Finally, such research has no obvious policy implications. It should be the goal of every society to provide good opportunities for everyone regardless of race, and this is true irrespective of the factors producing racial differences in intelligence.

“Alternative” sexuality

According to Kitzinger and Coyle (1995), research on gays and lesbians has gone through three distinct phases:

  1. Heterosexual bias: the notion that heterosexuality is more natural than, and superior to, homosexuality (see Key Study: Morin (1977) below).

  2. Liberal humanism: this is based on the assumption that homosexual and heterosexual couples have an underlying similarity in their relationships.

  3. Liberal humanism plus: what is added to the liberal humanistic view is an increased recognition of the specific characteristics of gay and lesbian relationships.

Key study: Morin (1977)

Find out more: Homosexuality and the DSM
Liberal humanism

The second phase of research described by Kitzinger and Coyle (1995) was based on the liberal humanistic approach. This approach rejected the notion that gays and lesbians are inferior to heterosexuals, and accepted that they should be regarded as individuals rather than as members of a group defined by sexual orientation. It was accepted within this approach that homosexuality is as natural and normal as heterosexuality.

Kurdek and Schmitt (1986) carried out a typical study within the liberal humanistic perspective. They compared gay, lesbian, married heterosexual, and heterosexual cohabiting couples. These couples were assessed for relationship quality based on love for their partner, liking of their partner, and relationship satisfaction. The gay, lesbian, and married heterosexual couples all had very similar levels of relationship quality, with heterosexual cohabiting couples being significantly lower. These findings support the view of an underlying similarity between homosexuals and heterosexuals.

The liberal humanist approach is limited rather than ethically dubious, but it does raise ethical issues. It has two major limitations. First, there is an assumption that gays and lesbians conform to heterosexual norms in their attitudes and behaviour. As a result, according to Kitzinger and Coyle (1995, p.67), “Researchers . . . have tended to ignore, distort or pathologise [regard as a disease] those aspects of lesbian and gay relationships which cannot easily be assimilated into heterosexual models.” There is an ethical problem here, because it is implicitly assumed that differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals reflect badly on homosexuals.

Second, the approach tends to ignore the difficulties with which gays and lesbians have to contend in terms of the prejudices of society. Some of these difficulties were identified by Kitzinger and Coyle (1995):

Lesbian and gay couples are struggling to build and to maintain relationships in the context of a society which often denies their existence, condemns their sexuality, penalises their partnerships and derides their love for each other.

  • Ask yourself: Does the socially sensitive nature of research related to homosexuals mean that it shouldn’t be conducted at all?

Liberal humanism plus

The third phase of research on gays and lesbians (liberal humanism plus) is gradually becoming more prominent. This approach accepts the equality of homosexuals and heterosexuals. However, it also recognises that there are some important differences between the relationships of gays and lesbians on the one hand and heterosexuals on the other, based in part on the negative views of gay and lesbian relationships adopted by large sections of society. It is the only approach that manages to avoid most ethical problems.

Social and cultural diversity

We have discussed the importance of ensuring that psychological research is sensitive to ethical issues relating to race and sexuality. Similar issues are raised by research that is concerned with social and/or cultural diversity. Here we will consider research on ethnic groups; that is, cultural groups living within a larger society. These ethnic groups can be defined in racial, religious, or other terms. The ethical issues raised by research on ethnic groups will be discussed after their position in society has been covered.

One of the key issues that members of an ethnic group have to address is that of acculturation strategy. This has two main aspects:

  1. The extent to which they want to retain their original cultural identity and customs

  2. The extent to which they seek contact with other groups in society.

As Berry (1997) pointed out, the fact that people have two choices to make (each of which can be for or against) means that there are four major acculturation strategies:

  • Integration: retaining one’s own cultural identity while also seeking contact with other groups.

  • Separation: retaining one’s own cultural identity and avoiding contact with other groups.

  • Assimilation: losing one’s own cultural identity and moving into the larger society.

  • Marginalisation: relatively little contact with one’s own culture or with other cultures.

Most of the research has indicated that members of ethnic groups experience stress as they strive to find the most suitable acculturation strategy. However, the typical finding is that acculturative stress is lowest among those adopting the integration option, and is highest among those who are marginalised (Berry, 1997). As might be expected, acculturative stress is lower when there is a high level of tolerance for diverse ethnic attitudes and behaviour within the larger society.

Why are acculturation strategy and acculturative stress relevant to ethical issues? There are three main reasons. First, the fact that many members of ethnic groups experience acculturative stress means that they are on average more vulnerable psychologically than members of the dominant cultural group. Second, research findings that seem to indicate that members of an ethnic group are inferior to the dominant cultural group may make members of the dominant cultural group less willing to have contact with them. This makes it harder for members of an ethnic group to adopt the integration or assimilation strategies.

Third, research findings that cast an unfavourable light on the members of an ethnic group may make them question their own cultural values. In extreme cases, this can lead to marginalisation and to the stress caused by lacking any stable sense of cultural identity.

In sum, it is important for all investigators to have an awareness of the pressures experienced by many ethnic groups. Investigators then need to ensure that their research (and the findings resulting from it) does not increase those pressures.

  • Ask yourself: How might schools encourage integration of different cultures into curriculum (e.g, by celebrating different cultural festivals)?


It has sometimes been argued that there are five key concerns of socially sensitive research: implications, uses, public policy, validity, and availability. We have addressed most of these concerns, but it is useful to provide a summary at this point.

  1. Implications: much socially sensitive research focuses on one or more group (often vulnerable) within society. The research may seem to have implications for members of that group or those groups who read about the research that has been carried out. For example, as McCosker et al. (2001) pointed out, they have had to pay close attention to the fact that many of the readers of their research on abused women will be women who have found themselves in similar situations. They reported that abused women who read about the research often saw echoes of their own situation in it. That means that researchers must be sensitive to the feelings of members of any groups upon which research is carried out.

  2. Uses: researchers who carry out socially sensitive research need to be aware of potential uses of their findings. For example, researchers who focus on alleged racial differences in intelligence may unwittingly lead some members of the public to believe falsely that some racial groups are superior to others. Research on gays and lesbians can also be used in inappropriate ways. Those who have unfavourable opinions of gays and lesbians may use research findings indicating differences between their relationships and those of heterosexuals as confirming their original opinions.

  3. Public policy: researchers need to be aware that their findings may be used by policy makers (e.g., politicians) in undesirable ways. For example, it could be argued that Bowlby’s research on maternal deprivation had the undesirable effect of encouraging mothers to stay at home throughout most of the childhood of their children. Another example is the unscrupulous use of evidence that blacks have lower tested IQs than whites on average. Some right-wing politicians argued (completely wrongly) that this proved that there was no point in providing special educational programmes for them.

  4. Validity: socially sensitive research is often controversial and of interest to the media. That means that it is especially important that researchers who engage in socially sensitive research do everything possible to ensure that their findings are valid. For example, it appears that John Bowlby exaggerated the negative consequences of young children spending some of their time separated from their mother. His somewhat invalid findings probably deterred many mothers who really wanted to go out to work from doing so.

  5. Availability: it is important in all research to ensure that information about individuals remains confidential, but it is especially important in socially sensitive research. For example, research that focuses on illegal behaviour (e.g., individuals taking Class A drugs) could lead to the prosecution of the participants unless there is complete confidentiality so that individuals cannot be identified.

What are the ethical issues in psychology?

  • Social influence research provides us with a number of examples where ethical rights were infringed and/or ethical guidelines did not work successfully.

  • Many well-known studies in psychology (those of Milgram, Zimbardo, Asch, and Rosenhan) pose serious ethical issues such as:

    • Deception

    • Lack of full informed consent.

  • Most ethical issues arise because the participants are in a relatively powerless position relative to the experimenter.
Resolving ethical issues

  • The ethical rights of human participants in psychological research are protected by ethical guidelines (though ultimately these are not always successful):

    • Participants should be protected from physical and psychological harm.

    • The data obtained from participants should be confidential and no information about individual participants should be divulged.

    • Participants should give their voluntary informed consent before taking part in an experiment.

    • Participants should be told that they have the right to withdraw at any time without giving a reason.

    • At the end of the experiment, there should be a debriefing period in which the experiment is discussed fully.

  • Professional organisations such as the British Psychological Society publish detailed ethical guidelines, and most research institutions have ethical committees.
What is socially sensitive research?

  • Socially sensitive research is concerned with studies where there are potential social consequences.

  • Ethical guidelines focus mainly on protection of the participants. However, it is important with socially sensitive research to consider the protection of groups to which the participants belong and those closely associated with the participants. These broader social issues need to be considered:

    • The research question selected: this reflects the researcher’s assumptions and may bias the research process from the outset.

    • The conduct of the research and treatment of participants.

    • The institutional context: this may make the participants feel powerless.

    • The interpretation and application of research findings: those running the organisation in which the research takes place may misuse the findings.

    • The findings of socially sensitive research may be applied in dubious ways not anticipated by the researcher, or the research may be used to justify new forms of social control.
Is socially sensitive research justified?

  • On the positive side:

    • Socially sensitive research may provide useful information to help minority groups, as in the case of eyewitness testimony.

    • Ethical committees do frequently reject research with potentially sensitive social consequences.

    • Researchers cannot generally be expected to foresee what they will find or how such findings will be used by others.

    • Preventing socially sensitive research can be counterproductive to understanding social inequalities.

  • On the negative side:

    • The findings of socially sensitive research have been used to justify new (and often unwarranted) forms of social control.

    • For example, in the past, psychologists have advocated sterilisation for undesirable groups of potential parents, and more recently behaviourists have suggested that psychological research can be applied to social control.

    • Such control is exerted through behavioural forms of therapy for mental disorders.

  • It is important to strike a balance when considering the advantages and disadvantages of socially sensitive research.
Race-related research

  • This has been defended on the grounds that it is ethically indefensible to refrain from acquiring such knowledge and making it available to society.

  • Important counterarguments include:

    • The fact that such findings may be based on faulty research methods and are used in unacceptable ways.

    • Race-related research on intelligence in the United States is almost meaningless, because black and white people don’t form distinct biological groups.

    • It isn’t possible to discover for certain why race differences occur, and the research does not have any obvious policy implications.
Alternative” sexuality

  • Early research on “alternative” sexuality suffered from heterosexual bias, tending to regard homosexuality as a disease that needed to be “cured”. This was replaced by a liberal humanistic approach. The limitations to this approach are:

    • The inherent assumption that homosexuals conform to heterosexual norms.

    • The fact that it ignores the problems created by the prejudice that homosexuals have to contend with.

  • More recently, an ethically acceptable approach (liberal humanism plus) has evolved.
Research on social and cultural diversity

  • Research on social and cultural diversity is socially sensitive.

  • Ethnic groups often experience acculturative stress, which may be resolved through:

    • Integration (acculturative stress is lowest among those adopting the integration option)

    • Separation

    • Assimilation

    • Marginalisation (acculturative stress is highest among those who are marginalised).

  • Acculturative stress makes individuals more vulnerable psychologically.

  • Research that suggests ethnic minorities are inferior might make members of the dominant cultural group less willing to have contact with them, which makes integration more difficult and may make them question their own cultural values, leading sometimes to marginalisation.

  • Investigators need to ensure that their research doesn’t increase pressures on ethnic minorities.
Summary of socially sensitive research

  • Researchers engaged in socially sensitive studies need to address five concerns: implications, uses, public policy, validity, and availability.

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