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.


Posted on February 19, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I thought you had some really interesting points in this blog. I agree with what you are saying that it is sometimes necessary to conduct these experiments because otherwise we would not be able to understand or learn from these behaviours. You say that the researchers usually have their participants best interest at heart, which I think we would all like to hope really, everyone thought that Milgram’s study of obedience (1963) was shocking and not very ethical but research following the experiment showed that 84% of the participants were glad they were involved and only 1% actually regretted being in it. Therefore it just shows how important these experiments are.

  2. Some very good points in your blog 🙂 but we have to remember that studies such as Asch’s and Milgram’s were not bound by the same ethical constraints we are today and have found some of the most influential results in psychology. But would they have found these if ethical guidelines had been in place? I’m sure we’re all agreed that Milgram’s experiment wouldn’t get ethical approval in this day and age with all the constraints put on research. However, does this mean we are missing out? Well, in my opinion ethics can hinder the progression of research but at the end of the day they are there to protect participants from harm. The example that follows is just one example of a piece of research that would not be allowed to happen today due to a highly unethical procedure.

    Johnson (1939)* was a speech expert who believed that children learned to stutter because of certain factors. For example, parents putting too much emphasis on a child’s speech development (i.e. telling them off for any slight mistake in pronunciation etc). In the study Johnson used a sample of 22 orphaned children who did not suffer from any problems with speech to demonstrate that he could induce stuttering in the child. The children were split into two groups and in the first group the children were given plenty of praise when they did well in speech therapy. However in the second group the children were bullied by the researcher, they were told they were stutterers and were made to feel extremely badly about themselves. As you would expect, the children in the second group didn’t develop stutters, instead they developed extremely poor self-esteem due to being made to feel worthless, and many refused to speak at all for fear of being told off.

    I have used this piece of research as an example of why research ethics are extremely important. Johnson (1939) took already vulnerable children, probably didn’t tell the orphanage what the experiment planned to do (as back then the orphanage probably didn’t ask) and made them feel even more vulnerable. Obviously this experiment breaks nearly every ethical guideline there is, which is why it is important that we adhere to the ethics so we avoid harming participants, possibly permanently!
    In 2001, 62 years after the study took place the participants finally discovered why they were treated so poorly**, clearly they should have been debriefed! Well today, due to the BPS ethical guidelines (a) the study wouldn’t have happened and (b) the participants would have been debriefed at the end.


    ** (didn’t technically use this for the information but quite interesting, and shocking!)

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