WJEC A2 Psychology PY4 - Controversies: Balance of Scientific Benefits Against Ethical Costs in Psychology



Scientific Benefits

  • the advantage gained in terms of knowledge and understanding from scientific research
  • a benefit could be something that was not known before, or it could be the improvement of existing knowledge
  • a benefit may also be assessed by practical gains in terms of improved treatments for illnesses, or changes to government policy based on psychological research
  • an example from Psych is Milgram's study which showed 'ordinary people' are willing to obey authority figures, disproving the 'Germans are different' hypothesis

Ethical Costs

  • the expense to the pps in a study (or indeed society as a whole)
  • this could be at a participant level (in terms of psychological/physical trauma for example), or a societal level, where technology may be abused to gain data
  • these costs can be relatively major or minor, eg the findings from Jensen's research had a damaging ethical cost by claiming black people had lower IQs due to genetics, which is an ethical cost towards wider society
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Scientific Benefits: Scientific Method

1. Scientific Benefit: Scientific Method

POINT = scientific studies are beneficial due to the use of scientific method. This means that some findings which are counter-intuitive to common sense, or the conventional wisdom of the time, are discovered

EXAMPLE/EXPLANATION = Milgram's (1963) study suggested (against the received wisdom and common sense of the time) that humans (Americans) can be exceptionally cruel just because they are told to + if a member of environmental stimuli (proximity of the victim and authority figure) are present. Demonstrates how useful scientific research is in providing evidence which might have been missed if we relied solely on common sense

COUNTER ARGUMENT = (-) however some scientific research lacks real world generalisability and eco validity. Eg Mendel's research into what actually happened in the Josefow massacre in Poland suggested that the environmental factors Milgram highlighted did not affect obedience levels in the ways predicted. Suggests that Milgram's research was true for that particular environment but not so much in the real world, as seen in Mendel's research. The research also provided the Nazi soldiers, who took part in the massacre, an excuse for their murderous behaviour

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Ethical Cost of Milgram's Study

2. Ethical Cost of Milgram's Study

POINT = Milgram's research was also notoriously unethical as the pps were not protected from physical and psychological harm

EXAMPLE = Milgram's pps were found to be biting their nails, sweating, digging fingers into their palms and showing obvious signs of stress, with 3 pps having seizures during the study

COUNTER ARGUMENT = (-) however some argue these issues were trivial and well dealt with, as in with the debriefing afterwards. Questionnaires found that 84% of pps were glad to have taken part and 74% believed they had learnt from the experience. This suggests that the scientific benefit outweighed the ethical cost of psych/phy harm in this study and a lot was discovered which was beneficial for the pps and society and understanding our behaviour, therefore perhaps ethical costs were not an issue in Milgram's study and on a wider scale, not an issue for scientific psych research when using a scientific method

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Scientific Benefits: Scientific Measuring Tools

3. Scientific Benefit: Scientific Measuring Tools

POINT = another scientific benefit in psych is development of scientific measuring tools, allowing individuals who need extra help to be identified in an unbiased and rapid way

EXAMPLE/EXPLANATION = Alfred Binet designed the IQ test, was designed to identify school kids who were falling behind their classmates in an objective, unbiased way, so that they could be given extra support, demonstrating an obvious benefit to society that would result in a better educated population as well as an increased esteem of individuals

COUNTER ARGUMENT = (-) however, many have criticised the benefit of IQ tests and have questioned their validity, suggesting that they don't actually measure the educational level attained or the intelligence of an individual in an unbiased way, but rather IQ tests just measure how good individuals are at doing them, which also means they can be culturally biased as certain (Western) cultures develop IQ tests and use them more than in other cultures. Suggests IQ tests aren't a scientific benefit or an accurate scientific measuring tool

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Ethical Cost of IQ Tests

4. Ethical Cost of IQ Tests

POINT = the test was later used as a way of dividing society up, and justifying the withdrawal of certain rights from humans

EXAMPLE/EXPLANATION = people who scored 70 or less experienced much prejudice and discrimination and being labelled an imbecile, moron or ****** became common. Discrimination was in terms of reduced job opportunities, as well as the more terrible enforced sterilisation and murder of individuals with low scores, a concept known as eugenics. Suggests that benefits of measuring others can be manipulated in order to negatively segregate those who don't do as well on IQ tests, and therefore causes a large ethical cost to wider society (poss psych/phy harm for those not considered under "average intelligence")

COUNTER ARGUMENT = (-) however some would argue it would be unfair to criticise Binet and the IQ test just because its use has been manipulated by a minority of people (eugenicists) for immoral causes, the IQ test is still greatly used today and has been useful in order to help those who need extra help during schooling

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Scientific Benefits: Health Benefits

5. Scientific Benefit: Health Benefits

POINT = health benefits discovered in scientific research in psych have been shown to increase/improve quality of life and indeed life expectancy of certain groups

EXAMPLE/EXPLANATION = Langer and Rodin's (1976) controlled study on the effects of induced responsibility in the elderly has clearly shown that personal choice + freedom promotes happiness and extends one's life expectancy, as those who were given more responsibility over decisions lived longer, happier lives than those who weren't. Suggests scientific research in psych has scientific benefits of improving the health of others

COUNTER ARGUMENT = (-) however, despite these 'discoveries' made by L+R, disappointingly many care homes in real world fail to act on this research and to encourage staff to emphasise resident control within their care homes. Rosaline Kane (1997) argues the perception of staff is that trying to implement more self-responsibility for residents in a care home is hard to organise practically (eg if every resident wanted same freedoms) and perhaps too expensive for tight budgets. Therefore real life benefits of research on health are negligible and difficult to carry out in real life, suggesting perhaps making this type of research/scientific benefit relatively redundant

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Ethical Cost of Langer and Rodin's Study

6. Ethical Cost of Langer and Rodin's Study

POINT = deception, lack of right to withdraw and lack of fully informed consent all occurred within this study and are all ethical costs

EXPLANATION = researchers obviously believed there may have been a benefit to those in the experimental group (EG) (induced responsibility) otherwise they wouldn't have tested it and so by having a control group they potentially exposed them to no benefits of increasing quality of life, suggesting deception + exposure to phy/psych harm (less control and consequently health worsened quicker than EG) in study hadn't consented to

COUNTER ARGUMENT = (-) however, L+R maintain they had no idea they were introducing factors that could prolong life for the EG. Although some argue it is unethical for pps to be at risk in any study that denies them a procedure/treatment (to see its effectiveness) = the control group were denied an opportunity to increase quality of life by having more control, others argue it is unethical not to do studies like this, otherwise any treatment could be marketed when not effective = morally wrong. Same dilemma is faced in all scientific medicine, therefore if psych is unethical for investigating health benefits scientifically, then so would the other sciences

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  • although there are many (ethical) costs to pps and possibly the wider population from psych studies, there has been a lot of valuable knowledge gained over the years as psych research has become more established
  • any scientific research in psych inevitably has moral or ethical costs, as do other sciences with living pps
  • ethical committees and guidelines are used and broadly based on utilitarian principles which suggest the best sort of research is that which is highly beneficial and low in ethical costs (most good to most people), although it is argued that this principle is impossible to measure and implement in the real world objectively
  • some argue that researchers who adhere to ethical guidelines and reduce ethical costs inevitably generate research low in benefits
  • however subjective nature of judging ethical costs and benefits across cultures and over time means it is impossible to measure
  • regardless of this though, as long as there is scientific research in psych, there will undoubtedly always be scientific benefits to some studies and ethical costs to others
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do you know what grade this is?

Zoey Jowett


Hi Anna, sorry I haven't got back to you sooner! This information is meant to be A grade :)

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