Scientific Benefit V's Ethical Cost

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What's an ethical cost?

Cost to participants in the study. 


  • breach of confidentiality 
  • use of deception 
  • lack of the right to withdraw
  • lack of informed consent 

Milgram: lack of right to withdraw as the experimenter pressured them to stay 

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Gross (2003)

Ethical issues develop because of the feelings humans and animals experience, like pain and fear 

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Double Obligation Dilemma

Psychologists have a duty to two kinds of people:

Particpants; must not come under any harm 

Human race; must seek and share knowledge which will benefit the human race. 

Controversy arises when there's conflict between these two people. 

Costs to participants are called ethical costs and the benefits to the human race are called scientific benefits. 

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What the participant believes is happening in the experiement is not what is actually going on because the experimenter is manipulating the situation. 

Leads to informed consent- participant is consenting to something which they have been decieved of

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Benefits to Deception

Scientific benefits 

If participants knew the aims, it would invalidate results. 

  • Participants may be subject to demand characteristics (changing behaviour to please experimenter)
  • Participants may be subject to participant effects (interfering with the aims of the study)
  • Asch's study would not have allowed comformity to be tested if aims were known
  • Often the outcome of the experiment outweighes the deception e,g Rosenhan and the DSM Model. 
  • In Asch's study participants were enthusiastic about taking part 
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Christensen (1988)

As long as deception isn't extreme, participants don't seem to mind. 

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Criticising Deception

Despite justifications, deception is still bad, immoral and unacceptable.

There's a potencial for stress,embarrassment, anxiety or depression (Milgram). 

Deception leads to informed consent. If Participants knew the true aims they might not take part (Rahe). 

We overcome  these issues by debreifing. 

Always a risk that psychological or physcial harm may be suffered. 

Could be great harm (Zimbardo) 

Could be minor harm (Asch) 

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Scientific Benefits

Explained by Milgram 

If we excluded a study of ethical issues, we would lose scientific information about human behaviour. 

Scientific benefits are not always apparent at the start of the study. 

Participants may end up suffering a great deal and so care little about the scientific benefit gained. 

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There's always going to be ethical issues in other types of research methods. 

  • Participants unaware they are being observed; scientific benefits in terms of reduced demand characteristics and participant effects 

Piliavin used obervations 

  • Issues of privacy and confidentiality 
  • It's okay if participants can expect to be observed, but not if they don't expect to be oberserved (Middlemist et al). 
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Field Experiment

Scientific Benefits 

  • Carried out in a natural environment and so participants don't know that they are involved in a study so it's more valid (Langer and Rodin's study had high ecological validity). 

Ethical issues 

  • Langer and Rodin's study had no informed consent and so participants were also prevented from withdrawing. 
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Case Studies

Scientific Benefit

  • High validity as a persons real life is being investigated (HM)

Ethical issues 

  • Lack of privacy and confidenciality 
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Use of Animals

It would be highly unethical to use humans (Selye)

We can also learn alot from using animals and this can be applied to human behaviour (Pavlov's dogs) 

Animals are cheaper

Animals are easier to control 

Scientific benefits:

  • Selye found information as to how stress affects humans. 

Ethical issues: 

  • Protection from harm, animals are bound to suffer from stress. 
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Cost-Benefit Analysis

Aronson (1992)- one way of dealing with ethical issues is using cost-benefit analysis which weighs up the scientific benefit against the ethical cost. 

Baimrind (1975)- disapproves. States that cost-benefit analysis legitimises ethical practices. 

Participants generally are not the ones who recieve the benefit. 

It could be argued that by taking part, participants learn something about themselves (Asch/Milgram). 

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Conclusion of Scientific Benefit V Ethical Cost

Ethical costs often do out weigh the scientific benefit. 

There are some studies with a high scientific benefit and a low ethical cost (Rosenhan)

Would be difficult to produce research where there is no ethical issues 

If an experiement does contain ethical issues, the experimenter must be sure that they will obstain great scientific results. 

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