Issues in Psychology

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Ethical Principles

In general terms, most animal researchers subscribe to what are sometimes known as the “three Rs”:

  • Replacement of animals by other research methods

  • Reduction in the number of animals used by means of more advanced statistical techniques

  • Refinement of experimental procedures to reduce animal suffering.

Use of the three Rs has proved very fruitful. For example, 5000 monkeys a year were used in the Netherlands in the 1970s to produce polio vaccines. During the 1990s, the number was reduced to only 10 monkeys.

The most obvious problem with the use of animals in research is that many of the ethical principles guiding research on human participants cannot be applied. For example, it is impossible for animals to give voluntary informed consent to take part in an experiment, and they cannot be debriefed at the end. Bateson (1986) argued that there are three main criteria that should be taken into account when deciding whether a study on animals is justifiable (this is often known as Bateson’s decision cube):

  1. The quality of the research: this can be assessed by the funding agency.

  2. The amount of animal suffering: this can be assessed from the animal’s behaviour and any signs of stress.

  3. Likelihood of benefit: this is important, but can be hard to judge accurately.

Animal research of high quality, involving minimal suffering, and with a high probability of benefit is the most justifiable. In contrast, animal research of poor quality, involving considerable suffering, and offering a low probability of benefit is hard to justify.

NOTE: Field experimenters can disrupt the animal’s natural environment. This can continue to be stressful to the animal long after the experiment has finished.

The limitation with Bateson’s approach is that there is no guarantee of assessing any of the three criteria with precision ahead of the research being carried out. So far as research quality is concerned, research that appears in advance to be relatively trivial may actually turn out to be of major importance. So far as animal suffering is concerned, this can only be assessed indirectly since we have no way of determining what any animal is actually experiencing. So far as likelihood of benefit concerned, this typically depends on the precise findings obtained. However, we don’t know in advance what findings will be obtained—if we did, there would be no point in carrying out the experiment!

  • Ask yourself: Do you think the things that are considered benefits to human society are fixed, or do they vary across cultures and over time? Do the needs of human societies change over time? How might this affect how we decide whether research is ethically acceptable or not?


It is very important for psychologists to develop ethical guidelines to protect animals’ rights, and to prevent the animals from suffering or being exploited. Most institutions regard the use of animals in research as being such a sensitive matter that it is normal practice for all proposed animal experiments to be carefully considered by an ethical committee. In the United Kingdom, the Home Office has overall control. Anyone who wants to carry out animal research must have a licence, and inspectors from the Home Office regularly inspect all animal facilities. All research on vertebrates in the United Kingdom is governed by the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986. This Act contains numerous safeguards to ensure that vertebrate research is ethically sound.

Investigators in most countries who are planning studies on animals are required to make use of ethical guidelines. For example, here is an extract from the American Psychological Association Guidelines for Ethical Conduct in the Care and Use of Animals:

Psychologists undertake research with animals “. . . with a clear scientific purpose.” . . . There should be a reasonable expectation that the research will increase knowledge of the processes underlying the evolution, development, maintenance, alteration, control, or biological significance of behaviour, b) increase understanding of the species under study, or c) provide results that benefit the health or welfare of humans or other animals.

Within the United Kingdom, the most important guidelines are those that were issued by the British Psychological Society in 1985. These guidelines state that researchers should “avoid, or at least minimise discomfort to living animals”. They represent a systematic attempt to provide a comprehensive set of rules and recommendations to guide the behaviour of any investigators who wish to carry out experiments on non-human participants. Find out more about the main points of these guidelines by following the link below.

Find out more: A summary of the British Psychological Society’s guidelines on research with non-human animals

SECTION SUMMARY: The Use of Non-human Animals
What are the benefits of animal research?

  • The benefits of animal research are less clear in psychology than in medicine.

  • Animals are used in experiments because:

    • Some procedures wouldn’t be permissible with humans (either those involving physical harm or social deprivation).

    • It is easier to use animals, especially to study the effects of heredity, because they reproduce over much shorter time periods than humans, and because it is easier to understand their behaviour.

    • Objections aren’t raised about some non-human animal research because it benefits non-human animals and/or humans.

  • The reality is that there has been a great decline in non-human animal research, and a very small proportion of animal research involves primates.
Society's views of animal research

  • Females, left-wing people, and vegetarians are more opposed to animal experimentation than males, right-wing people, and non-vegetarians.

  • Most people support animal experimentation in medical research and don’t want to see animal experiments abolished.

  • No set of ethical principles for animal experimentation could possibly satisfy all of these different groups.

  • There are also cultural and historical differences in attitudes.


  • This refers to the discrimination and exploitation of another species based on the fact that it is different from our own.

  • Speciesism can be defended on the grounds that:

    • We owe a special duty to our own species, and there are powerful evolutionary reasons for this preference.

    • The human species is very different to other species. Humanistic psychologists have emphasised the differences, pointing to aspects of human behaviour such as the drive for self-actualisation. If there are differences then such research is acceptable. Specieism can be opposed on the grounds that:

    • Such differences (between the human species and other species) make the research irrelevant.

    • Speciesism resembles racism and sexism, and, like these “isms”, discriminates unjustly against individuals on irrelevant grounds.

    • Primates and other mammals are similar to the human species in many ways, and thus deserve to be well treated.
Costs and benefits of animal research

  • The views of most people on animal experimentation are based on relative morality.

  • However, an analysis based on relative costs and benefits presumes that one can anticipate both of these before conducting the research, and that we can assess levels of suffering.
Ethical principles and guidelines

  • Ethical principles in relation to non-human animals can be represented by the three Rs:

    • Replacement with other methods

    • Reduction in numbers

    • Refinement of procedures.

  • One ethical problem is that animals cannot be given the same rights as human participants, such as informed consent.

  • Bateson’s decision cube suggests that researchers should consider:

    • The quality of the research

    • The amount of suffering

    • The likelihood of benefit.

  • However, all of these factors are difficult to judge accurately in advance of the research.

  • Ethical committees, ethical guidelines, and the Home Office try to ensure appropriate conduct in non-human animal research.

  • One should remember that not all studies with non-human animals involve laboratory experimentation.
Further Reading

Many of the issues discussed in this chapter are also dealt with in M.W. Eysenck (2009) Fundamentals of Psychology (Hove, UK: Psychology Press). There is good coverage of gender issues in R. Unger and M. Crawford (1996) Women and gender: A feminist psychology (2nd Edn.) (New York: McGraw-Hill). Cross-cultural research and the issues it raises are discussed in P. Smith and M.H. Bond (1998) Social psychology across cultures: Analysis and perspectives (2nd Edn) (New York: Harvester). P. Singer (2005) In defence of animals: The second wave (Oxford: Blackwell) covers ethical issues, whereas J.E. Sieber and B. Stanley (1988) Ethical and professional dimensions of socially sensitive research, American Psychologist, 43 (1), 49–55, offers a consideration of socially sensitive research.

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