Ethics & Stats…my favourite combination!

The declaration of Helsinki has been referred to by many as the cornerstone document of human research ethics. (WMA 2000, Bošnjak 2001, Tyebkhan 2003). The Helsinki convention has been spread by the World Medical Association as a statement of ethical principles for medical research involving human subjects. The 5 basic principals of ethics are as follows-

  • Research on humans should be based on results from lab experimentations.
  • Research protocol should be reviewed by committee before initiation.
  • Informed consent from participants is needed.
  • Research should be conducted by qualified individuals.
  • The risks should not out weigh the benefits.

Both the Helsinki Convention and the BPS code require the participant are to give informed consent as an ethical guideline. However, in order for almost all experiments in Psychology to be worthwhile and the results to be valid, it would not be possible to ensure there is informed consent. Deception invalidates any informed consent gained by the experimenter, yet we find that deception is oftem unavoidable. The most important findings in Psychology have come from experiments in which deception has taken place, for example Milgram’s 1963 obedience experiment. Many would agree that what Milgram found astonishing and many would deem this experiment as one of the most important in the history of Psychology, and yet many more consider it to be unethical. But was it? After the experiment a survey showed that 84% of participants “glad” to “very glad” that they participated in the experiment. Some even wrote letters that expressed their thanks. Due to the participants being deceived, is informed consent possible?

We have all participated in a Sona experiment. I for one have been participated in an experiment in which some information had been withheld from me. Not about the task I had to do or what they were measuring, it was that they were also seeing if, as a non-smoker, I would respond differently to someone who smoked regularly. Did I feel deceived? Upset? I can honestly say…No. In fact it made the participant all the more interesting, and I actually read the debrief. If however I had known what they were measuring this might have affected the results.

I’m not saying that all of the ethics guidelines should be breeched, merely that in most cases a degree of deception is necessary.

 

Dolig Llawn pawb!

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Ethics & Stats…my favourite combination!

  1. Further evidence to back up your point that Milgram was actually in fact ethical comes from when he asked a panel of 110 experts on human behaviour, including 40 psychiatrists who all agreed in saying it was ethical but a waste of time. They thought no one would actually give the shocks. How wrong were they!

  2. I really like how you have linked the Helsinki Convention to the BPS, because I really didn’t know the difference because they seem so similar. But I agree that although these guidelines are set to protect the partcipants, but sometimes they have to be forgotten to be able to get the most out of the research…

    Without deception, most behavioural studies would not be able to take place, although this a very large area in psychology that we take interest in- http://research.unlv.edu/ORI-HSR/deception-study.htm

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  4. I agree that the work that Milgram completed was wrong according our norms of ethics. However Milgram’s work was conducted in 1961 (Benjamin & Simpson, 2009)1 this was 3 years before the Helsinki code was introduced (La Vaque & Rossiter, 2001)2, which was the first widely acknowledged ethics code. Furthermore Milgram used panels of psychiatrists and academics to judge whether any harm will come to the participants. Furthermore, as you rightly point out he distributed questionnaires to participants in a lengthy debrief period (Milgram, 1964)3. Therefore Milgram did actually follow the most thorough ethical methodology available to him at the time. Not only this, the research made a great contribution to our understanding of obedience, personality and social psychology (Benjamin & Simpson, 2009)1.

    1- http://0-search.proquest.com.unicat.bangor.ac.uk/psycinfo/docview/614493443/fulltextPDF/13389F9946E67236395/5?accountid=14874
    2- http://0-www.springerlink.com.unicat.bangor.ac.uk/content/v351387828jj33w4/fulltext.pdf
    3- http://0-search.proquest.com.unicat.bangor.ac.uk/psycinfo/docview/614257992/fulltextPDF/133899C192368BC8720/1?accountid=14874

  5. I agree with what you’re saying. In most experiments you have to deceive people in order to get true results. And I think in some cases, especially nowadays people expect to be deceived. I know when I go to do my SONA experiments, in the back of my mind I wonder what the researchers are really testing, and I agree that I would never be offended if they did deceive me. But I can see why some people would think it was unethical. I’m sure we all know that one person who has to have a complain about something. Well I think the informed consent issue is to do with that. The fact that someone at some time could be offended by something makes it really difficult for researchers to carry out their experiments sometimes. However, you cannot have these procedures just because most people would be fine with being deceived. But I totally agree with what you’re saying. 🙂

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  7. I agree that deception is a necessity in many psychological studies in order to obtain unbiased and true results. Provided a participant is debriefed correctly and fully to ensure that they leave the study knowing exactly what it was about and why information was withheld it is unlikely that they will be at all concerned about being deceived. But what about things which are often perceived as deception but actually aren’t.

    Take Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment (1971). Participants were fully informed beforehand about what was being testing and the conditions that they would be living in, therefore they were fully aware that prisoners would not be living in good conditions and would not be treated pleasantly by guards, however this study is under great scrutiny about deception involved. This scrutiny mostly involves the results found from the study and the actual behaviour that happened in the model environment. The ‘guard’s went beyond the role expected of them, abusing the prisoners and causing them harm, leading to some of the ‘prisoners’ having to leave due to mental health problems. It could be suggested that participants had been deceived in the study as they were not aware of the full extent of the study therefore they had not given consent to be treated in the way that they were, however if the researchers cannot anticipate the results then is this really deception or not?

    In this study participants were fully debriefed and had many psychological assessments over time to ensure there was no long term trauma from participating, so even if the study is considered unethical and that participants were deceived, it could be argued that the ends justify the means, as the stress and discomfort involved was only temporary and it has led to major findings in the field of psychology. Therefore I think that deception should be allowed as long as it is justified.

    For more information about Zimbardo’s experiment and the ethics involved in it, including a consent form, information sheet and review committee application, please see here: http://www.prisonexp.org/faq.htm#ethics

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  9. The necessity for ethics in psychological research is, in my opinion, a sorry thing. Ethics are, in many ways, a shackled that psychology has tied around it’s own ankle. I understand it’s function and importance, of course, but I find it still hinders the progression of research significantly in a lot of areas. Milgram’s study is a good example of how ethics could have restrained priceless social research. Had Milgram’s board of professionals deemed the study unethical, the results would never have been published and that piece of our knowledge would never have been produced. Thankfully, the assumptions made by the board were wrong since, had they assumed otherwise, science would have suffered, and I can’t help but hope that more loop holes are found and more mistakes are found in ethics, so that psychology can progress at an optimum rate.

    • Although ethics may hinder some research, hoping for mistakes to be made is surely a recipe for disaster? For every piece of research that is deemed unethical, how many of them will be gems like Milgram? I’ve noticed that many people talk about Milgram in context to unethical research that has provided benefit to science, yet Milgram is one of very few that is mentioned in this category , I believe that loosening our grasp on ethics is a recipe for disaster and that Milgram’s is simply an exception to this rule.

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