Ethics: Duty of Protection
The main reason for which we require informed consent (last week’s topic) is that the participant needs to feel safe in the experiment. For this reason, particularly in the case of non-informed consent there is a responsibility of care hoisted onto the shoulders of researchers. The standard is that participants should not be subjected to risks which are greater than or additional to those encountered in day to day life. This is all very noble but when actually adhered to, can really limit the significance of the progress that can be made, particularly as the word risk is applied to some rather weak complaints. Just consider the reason we so often do lab experiments rather than field experiments in the first place – we want to induce a particular response by controlling variables to see which variable is responsible. In such an unnatural environment, the stimulus has to be of considerable strength in order to illicit this response. Therefore, in studies that wish to test topics such as conformity (For example Asch, 1951) which is a sensitive issue, how are we supposed to establish an effect without causing the embarrassment and confusion that may come with it? – As with everything in psychology, no areas are mutually exclusive. This is particularly an issue as a great deal of what we study in psychology is deviance in behaviour: what makes people do things which they know are wrong such as poor diet, smoking, excessive drinking, obeying and conforming to immoral behaviour as well as committing outright criminal acts. The whole point of trying to study these deviances is that we don’t believe that they just occur randomly in the participants day to day life, we belief there is a cause for this deviance and that only through attempting to trigger such responses can we learn what these triggers are. Surely that’s worth these ‘risks’?
This issue becomes significantly more convoluted though when you consider that many studies are done on child participants and those who lack their full mental health or faculties. While these are clearly areas which are of great interest and so these are not participants whom we can do without, we have to be careful that we’re not too hasty to throw of the responsibility as researchers to the consent of parents and carers. Though they may feel the participant will be safe, we still need to be as sure that the ‘responsible’ adult does indeed have the participant’s best interest at heart. Assuming that a person’s assumption about another person’s willingness to take part in an experiment which has not been fully explained is clearly murky water. As with any issue of this type we can ultimately only enact the middle ground: the consent of another is the best we can get but we mustn’t abandon our judgement. A parent will usually protect the child’s welfare…usually.