WJEC A2 Psychology PY3 - Ethical Issues in the Use of Human Participants

Notes for the Ethical Issues in the Use of Human Participants Essay for the PY3 exam


Ethical Issues - Deception

1. Deception = deliberately misleading (active) or withholding info (passive) from the pps about the true nature of the research study

(-) Issue for the pps =

  • pps more sceptical of psychologists and their research, so reputation of psychology may be harmed, becomes increasingly difficult to recruit pps in future research
  • pps may not have wanted to participate in a study if they knew what was actually going to happen; they cannot give their fully informed consent either, considered a breach of human rights

(+) Benefits for the researcher =

  • sometimes necessary for researcher as if pps know full aims of study, may display demand characteristics (change behaviour according to the aim of study = whether they want to help researcher or go against instructions purposefully - Help/Screw you effect), reduces validity as difficult to generalise results to target pop, pps behaviour may not be true reflection = deceptive studies yield more valid results
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Ethical Issues - Deception


  • study which illustrates effects of deception - Milgram's (1963) study of obedience, told pps that study was about memory, the electric shocks were real and they were deceived about learner being a confederate
  • if pps hadn't been deceived, study would not have yielded such high levels of obedience = knowledge of fake electric shocks would have made the situation less intense = pps behaviour different = less obedience
  • however, particular study = caused a lot of controversy because of psych/phy harm to pps = perhaps deception is only an issue when psych/phy harm is a probability?
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Ethical Issues - Fully Informed Consent

2. Lack of Fully Informed Consent = when experimenter doesn't tell pps everything about study and asks permission to take part once study is over and NOT beforehand

(-) Issue for the pps = pps being allowed to decide for themselves whether they wish to take part in a study or not is a basic human right; if they don't know full aims of study, may not want to participate and are unaware of possible psych/phy harm

(+) Benefits for the researcher = lack of fully informed consent before an expt may increase study's validity because reduced chance of demand characteristics (won't change behaviour according to aims) = increases scientific credibility


  • in Rosenhan's (1973) study, the pps (doctors and nurses) were completely unaware the study was taking place, this may reduce chance of demand characteristics and increase validity as pps behaving naturally, BUT if it causes psych/phy harm, LOFIC is significant because the pps never got to choose whether they wanted to participate or not when knowing about the study beforehand
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Ethical Issues - Invasion of Privacy

3. Invasion of Privacy = where the researcher may invade privacy of pps without their awareness eg being covertly observed somewhere the pps wouldn't expect

(-) Issue for the pps = covert observation in an unexpected setting is a personal intrusion and very immoral; especially problematic when research is socially sensitive eg sexual behaviour as a breach of human rights

(+) Benefits for the researcher = studies where privacy is invaded provide most ecologically valid results; without this issue, the results gained may not be as accurate eg due to social desirability bias because pps change their behaviour


  • Laud Humphreys (1973) study involved a covert pps observation of gay men in public toilets; was followed up by a qs sent to homes of the men (traced via their car number plates) = catalyst for many family breakdowns as many pps had families and wives who were unaware of secret sexual activity; led to psychologically harmful consequences for the pps and although necessary to yield results covertly, arguable whether the benefits to society were worth the harm to pps
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Ethical Issues - Psychological/Physical Harm

4. Participant Protection from Psychological/Physical Harm = pps shouldn't experience any psych/phy harm from a study. A ps should leave the study in the same state they started it and if they don't, it becomes unethical

(-) Issue for the pps =

  • unethical to harm pps as a breach of basic human rights to be protected from harm; especially an issue when harm has long term effects on pps because a study should see the impact the IV has on the DV and not on the state of the pps

(+) Benefits for the researcher =

  • although harm is an issue, if it only affects a small minority of people and it benefits society as a whole significantly, it can be considered a worthwhile pursuit
  • even if a researcher conducts risk assessments before a study about the likelihood of a ps experiencing harm, it's impossible to predict the actual impact a study will have - therefore should researchers not conduct studies because there is only a possibility of harm to pps?
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Ethical Issues - Psychological/Physical Harm


  • Milgram's (1963) obedience study = classic example of lack of protection from psych/phy harm: less than 1% of pps were predicted to go to the full 450 volts = anticipated they would feel uncomfortable shocking the learner and stop
  • study caused seizures, sweating, anxiety and guilt: completely unethical to allow pps to experience this harm, shows how pps cannot be relied on to stop themselves from being in psychologically/physically harmful situations
  • h/w Milgram could never have predicted these harmful consequences BUT one has to question whether proving the 'Germans are different' hypothesis wrong was worthy of harming the pps?
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Ethical Issues - Confidentiality

5. Confidentiality = researcher fails to protect confidentiality of pps by publishing findings where pps can be identified or during study even if names withheld

(-) Issue for the pps = pps uncomfortable revealing identity in a study = everyone has the right to remain anonymous in a study. Group expts make it difficult to disguise identity of pps, a group expt may affect validity of results as pps may display socially desirable behaviour due to the lack of confidentiality

(+) Benefits for the researcher = sometimes group expts are necessary, eg in social experiments to see effects of pps behaviour, confidentiality has to be breached = even with Data Protection Act (1984) difficult to determine what is considered private/personal info, should be kept confidential as it varies between cultures/age etc


  • Asch's (1955) study involved pps giving responses in front of confederates not confidential, an issue for the pps and questions validity of results. However, it was necessary to conduct group expt to see conformity levels - perhaps confidentiality only an issue in socially sensitive research/revealing personal info?
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Ethical Issues - Right to Withdraw

6. Right to Withdraw = pps allowed to withdraw from study but also know they can leave study at any point and withdraw data; issue arises when pps not aware of this right

(-) Issue for the pps = unaware they can withdraw or even if pps informed they can, sometimes they don't feel they can; often lack of right to withdraw comes from LOFIC because if unaware of participation in study, cannot withdraw = basic human right

(+) Benefits for the researcher = if no right to withdraw, likely no fully informed consent = increases validity as less chance of demand characteristics, also beneficial as if pps do withdraw, this affects data and sample size = how generalisable results are


  • Langer and Rodin's (1976) study = no fully informed consent and no right to withdraw, if pps had known about study, may have not wanted to participate (esp as results showed the lack of control for the control group debilitated health compared to expt group); in most US unis, psych students must participate in number of psych studies (build up credits) to achieve degree qual. so many students may feel withdrawing from a study may jeopardise their career/qualifications
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