Ethical Issues with Human Participants

Deception and Protection of Participants

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  • Created on: 13-06-09 14:25
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Describe it:
Informed consent is where participants agree to take part in an experiment in full knowledge of all
aspects of the experiment which may affect their willingness to take part, including the aims and
expected results.
Why it's important to uphold:
This is an important ethical issue to uphold because it's important that participants understand what
they are letting themselves in for. If participants feel they have been deceived/misled they may be
distrustful of psychologists in the future, which could prove detrimental to the psychological
Why that might not be possible:
It is, however, debatable as to whether fully informed consent can ever actually be given. This is
because it is impossible for the researcher to predict everything that could possibly happen to the
participant during the study. Also, it should be taken into consideration that people will always
interpret and experience things differently, especially those with low cognitive ability.
Research studies that have breached it:
Although Milgram's participants gave informed consent they actually had absolutely no idea what
they were letting themselves in for. This is because they were deceived as to the aims of the study,
the fact that the `learner' was actually a confederate, and that it was actually a test of obedience, not
one of learning.
Zimbardo's experiment involved a lack of informed consent, but to a lesser extent than in Milgram's
study. In Zimbardo's study participants knew that they would be given a role of `prisoner' or `guard',
and expected to act accordingly. They did not, however, understand the full extent of what they
would go through as a consequence of participating, as even the researchers could not predict this.
Why the breach was necessary:
It was necessary that the participants in Milgram's study were unable to give fully informed consent,
in order to uphold the validity of the study. If the participants had been aware of the true aims and
nature of the study they may have shown demand characteristics, or acted differently dependent on
how they want to be perceived by society. Therefore it was entirely necessary to not acquire
informed consent as if participants had been aware of all aspects then it would have rendered the
experiment meaningless.
As previously mentioned, fully informed consent was not possible in Zimbardo's study, because even
the researchers could not have anticipated how the experiment unfolded. Nonetheless, it is
questionable as to how necessary it was to arrest participants from their homes at midnight, as this
could have caused much embarrassment to the participants and their families.

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Was the breach justified:
Milgram dealt with his lack of informed consent by thoroughly debriefing his participants after the
experiment. It is questionable as to whether this was enough in light of the fact some participants
experienced extreme reactions to the pressure exerted on them, however the majority of
participants revealed that they were happy to have taken part in the experiment.…read more

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Protection of Participants
Another ethical issue which often arises is the protection of participants.
Describe it:
Ethical guidelines state that investigators have a responsibility to protect participants from
physical and psychological harm, including stress, embarrassment, and humiliation. Normally
the risk of harm should be no greater than that experienced in everyday life.
Why it's important to uphold:
It is important that this ethical issue is upheld, because failure to abide by this rule could
have dire consequences for the psychological community.…read more

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Although neither Milgram nor Zimbardo intentionally put their participants at risk, it could be
seen that the psychological harm experienced was, in a way, necessary. This is because we're
dealing with dubious situations, in which we can only find out what to expect by letting it
happen. For example, some may argue that it would be possible simply to ask people how
they might behave in the situation to be studied, rather than just conducting the study.…read more


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