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Discuss the problems that Psychologists have faced when attempting to define a set of ethical guidelines for research using human participants. The main dilemma faced by psychologists is that it is often difficult to balance the scientific validity of experiments, with the need to protect the rights and integrity of their participants. A number of issues emerge: how far should psychologists go in trying to further their knowledge? Do the ends justify the means? Do we have a responsibility to predict the potential stress and harm to individuals (or society in the case of socially sensitive research).

The BPS (1993) has published ethical guidelines for conducting research with human participants and while, many of the research covered here is either American or earlier than these guidelines, they give us a focus for discussion. One of the most problematic guidelines is that of DECEPTION – the BPS suggests that participants shouldn’t be deliberately mislead except when scientifically necessary.

This causes a number of problems: social psychological research (like Asch’s conformity studies or Milgram on obedience) relies on deception to increase ecological validity and lower the effects of demand characteristics – in fact, most of these kinds of experiments would be impossible without some deception. Milgram (1972) argued that to enhance the realism of his situation total deception was therefore ‘psychologically and scientifically an integral part of the experiment’. On the other hand, deception may cause undue distress and loss of self-esteem on the part of the participants and may also lead to problems regarding another guideline – CONSENT.

Deception implies that any consent given is not true, or informed consent, and this issue arises in a number of situations e.g. in studies of Bystander Apathy (e.g. Piliavin’s Subway experiment) consent could not be gained at all, since any consent would have made the ‘naturalistic observation’ worthless. Also the issue of consent vs informed consent can be applied to areas where the participants themselves do not give consent, such as Watson and Rayner’s study of phobias on Little Albert or in cases where people with serious brain injuries are studied. In both these cases, consent is given by relatives, but, especially in the case of Little Albert’s parents, it is unlikely that everyone was fully understanding of the methods and consequences.

The right to WITHDRAWAL from the investigation at any time must also be considered. In Milgram’s study the participants were firmly obliged to continue through what he called ‘verbal prompting’ while in Zimbardo’s prison simulation, one of the key parts of the experiment was denying the right to withdraw. Both of these could perhaps be justified on scientific grounds. Zimbardo discontinued the experiment as soon as real stress began to tell to his participants and Milgram argued that prompting was designed to simulate the conditions inside some of the Death Camps during the Holocaust – i.e. it was meant to be forceful. Others have argued that any payment of money may lead to participants feeling they cannot withdraw, though the BPS guidelines state this should not be the case.

PROTECTION OF PARTICIPANTS is a key issue. Baumrind criticised Milgram for failing to protect his subjects from stress and discomfort (one even had a seizure), while Bandura’s experiment using the Bobo doll was criticised for forming aggressive behaviour in children. As an answer to Baumrind’s criticisms, Milgram demonstrated that extensive DEBRIEFING (a key ethical stipulation in itself), was undergone and a questionnaire and follow up survey suggested that the majority of his participants were pleased to have been part of the experiment and felt that more like it should be conducted. They were examined one year later by a psychiatrist, who found no long term negative effects.

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