Why is ethics important in psychological research

Psychology and ethics

psychology touches the subject ethics in a variety of ways. On the one hand in the research with people and animals. Much stronger but in that applicationwhere it's about that Changing the experience (e.g. thinking, feeling, wanting or making decisions) and the Behavior from people. This applies in particular to the Business psychology. Any change in emotions, motives or decisions without the information and consent of the people concerned immediately raises ethical questions. This is all the more true when inconceivable techniques are used.
What are central ethical principles and rules for psychologists? Can one Professional ethics of psychology sketch? That's what this chapter is about. ...

Ethics and psychological research

psychology touched ethical questions already in the research. To what extent are people or animals exposed to stress, possibly even pain? What happens to the participants' data? To what extent are participants informed about the actual research goals (after) an experiment? How much does an experiment intervene in the psychological process? What long-term consequences for participants are acceptable?

The showcase shows a concrete example of an experiment in which exactly such questions arise.

Research example: Milgram, 1963

The Milgram Studies have also received attention beyond the professional world under the term “electroshock experiments”. They are probably the most famous experiments in psychology. But even then, Milgram was heavily attacked for unethical behavior (Baumrind, 1964), temporarily excluded from the APA (American Psychological Association), and was subsequently exposed to professional disadvantages. What happened, no real shocks were given? Here is a compact overview:

Questions: Originally, Stanley Milgram was interested in researching conditions for obedience. A more abstract background was to be able to classify the events in the Third Reich better psychologically and also the thesis "Germans are different" discussed at the time. In particular, Milgram tested a number of specific variables for their association with obedience: the status of the person whom subjects were supposed to obey, the exposure of the subjects to the person to whom they were to be electrocuted, the gender and nationality of the subjects.

procedure: The sequence of a series of examinations was always similar. There are three key people: an experimenter who will be instructed to give electric shocks; a subject in the role of “teacher” who is supposed to give electric shocks; an actor, whom the test participant takes for another participant, in the role of a "learner" who appears to receive the electric shocks, but in fact only simulates the pain, of course.

  1. Recruitment of the test participants: Among other things, advertisements in newspapers were used to attract participants for an experiment on "learning" at a well-known university.
  2. Emphasis on the status of the experimenter: a tall elderly man in a white coat received the participants at the university. He introduced himself as head of the laboratory, showed a very thick book to underline the scientific nature again.
  3. Communication of an advanced scientific question: It is about the effects of punishment on learning success, for example the question of how severe a punishment should be, whether it makes a difference who punishes (women, men, older or younger people), etc.
  4. Apparent raffling of roles as teacher and learner (teacher vs. learner): Participants drew a piece of paper together with an actor who also pretended to be a normal participant. You were always assigned to the role of teacher because both slips of paper said “teacher”, but the actor simply called out “learner” and didn't show his slip of paper.
  5. Explanation of the experimental setting: There is a list of meaningless word pairs. The “learner” is always given one of the words and has to choose the correct word from four alternatives by pressing one of four buttons. He gets feedback as to whether it was the right word. Whenever he picks the wrong one, the subject should electrocute him.
  6. Reinforcement of the credibility of the experiment: The participant is explained the device for administering the electric shocks, receives a weak electric shock himself and sees how the learner is fixed to a chair and electrodes with electrically conductive paste are applied. He overhears the learner telling the experimenter about a heart condition and being calmed down by it.
  7. Spatial separation: The test participant comes into another room in front of the device, he hears the learner's answers via loudspeaker and answers with a microphone.
  8. Start of the experiment: the participant names one word, the "learner" gives the answer. If the answer is correct, he only gets the response "correct" and the next word follows. If the answer is wrong, the response “Wrong answer. Right answer is… ". In addition, the “teacher” must give the “learner” an electric shock. Apparently, with every wrong answer, the voltage rose from 15 volts to 450 volts at the end in steps of 15 volts.
  9. Behavior of the learner: In fact, the “learner”, an actor, was of course not electrocuted. But he played his role well, uttered screams of pain, begged to be released at some point, knocked on the wall, refused to answer at a certain point, then only moaned and at some point remained completely unresponsive, gave no more answers and also showed no reaction to electric shocks.
  10. Behavior of the experimenter: The experimenter tried to get the participants to obey so that they could continue with the experiment as long as possible. To do this, he used rather flat statements that he kept repeating, such as “Please continue teacher.”, “The experiment requires you to continue. Please continue. "," Once we've started we cannot stop. "Or" I'm responsible for anything that happens here. "

Results of the experiments: Of the 40 participants in the first experiment, not a single one refused to take part from the start. Most of the test participants showed clear stress signals in the course of the process, began to laugh manically, wanted to get up several times and stop, discussed with the test director, wanted to see whether the other participant (learner) was doing well after he no longer reacted. Still, they continued after the experimenter told them to do so. Only from 300 volts some of the participants refused to continue, 26 people (of 40) went all the way to the highest level (450 volts). In the end, 65 percent of the participants were willing to seriously harm someone else, possibly even life-threateningly, if an authoritarian person asked them to do so.

As a result, further experiments showed:

  • Obedience wanes when the authoritarian experimenter is replaced with someone of less status (Milgram, 1974).
  • Obedience also decreases when the experimenter is less present, i.e. giving instructions over the phone (Milgram, 1974).
  • Physical proximity to the learner influences obedience. Less obedience when the person is sitting directly across from them (Milgram, 1974).
  • Groups of women and young people showed a level of obedience similar to that of the men in the first study (Milgram, 1974, Burger, 2009).
  • In different countries the majority of participants continued the experiment up to the highest level (Blass, 2012).
  • Even today, similarly high levels of obedience can be expected (Burger, 2009).

All in all, there is a surprisingly great willingness among people to submit to authority. This is true even if you assume that you will cause serious harm to other people.

The example shows that there is every reason to ask the question of ethical principles for psychology. As this question arises, the German Society for Psychology (DGPs) and the Professional Association of German Psychologists (BDP) have something in common ethical guidelines created for psychological research. The same goes for the American Psychological Association (APA). The illustration shows an overview.

The following thoughts are central.

  • Information and consent. Test participants should, as far as the test design allows, be informed and explicitly consent to the research on the basis of this information. Relevant information is, for example, the procedure and duration of the attempt to cancel the right at any time, which data is collected and how it is handled.
  • Pressure and incentives. Participants should not be motivated by strong external pressure, for example because they are dependent on them (test subject obligation for students) or by excessive material incentives (payment). That runs counter to the idea of ​​voluntariness.
  • Benefits vs. Risks and Harm. The scientific benefits and risks should not fall below a reasonable ratio. This also applies to psychological experiments in which animals serve as test subjects.
  • Dealing with deception. Some experiments involve deceiving participants about their true goals so as not to distort the results. Often it is not possible to inform participants in advance that an experiment is taking place without massively impairing their behavior and thus endangering the informative value of the experiment. With such test conditions, it makes sense to only deceive test subjects in aspects which, if they were aware, would presumably not greatly reduce their willingness to participate. In addition, after the attempt, clarification should take place about the actual process and actual goals.
  • Care after the attempt. Participants should receive adequate supervision after an attempt. Most of the time, a final discussion or a short piece of information on the computer screen with a contact for further questions will suffice.

What about ethics in research practice? The next section on this.

Business Psychology: Ethics in Research Practice

Ethical principles are nice - but do you stick to them in practice? Not only the above-described Milgram experiment violates almost all ethical ideas. These are to be understood as an orientation and can usually not be fully complied with. If you look at publications in scientific journals in the field of business psychology, hardly any study fully meets the above-mentioned requirements. What is the reason? The loss of informative value through clarification would then often be too great, and extensive implementation and documentation of consent would be too time-consuming. Researchers therefore set ethical guidelines in relation to other goals, such as gaining knowledge. They try to find a meaningful overall solution and prioritize in individual cases.

Typical - and often required for the informative value of a study - are, for example camouflaged test situationsas the following example shows.

Research example: Strahan, Spencer and Zanna, 2002

A camouflaged experimental situation (also a hidden test situation) is characterized by the fact that the participants know that an experiment is taking place, but are concerned with an advanced task. The actual test goals remain in the dark. One example is a study of the influencing of behavior with subliminally shown - i.e. not consciously perceived - stimuli (Strahan, Spencer and Zanna, 2002).

procedure: The authors invited test participants to a marketing study in which they were asked to try and evaluate certain products.
Half of the people were allowed to drink something during the experiment (no thirst), the other half were not (thirsty).
In a questioning on the computer during the advanced product test study, half of the test persons from the two groups were again shown thirst-specific words below the conscious perception threshold without their knowledge.
After this survey, the participants in the experiment were offered all drinks.

Results: People from the experimental group with thirst, who were already thirsty, drank even more after the experiment if they had received the subliminal stimuli. They drank almost twice as much as those who were thirsty and who had not received these stimuli.

If the test subjects had been informed in advance what the goals of the experiment were and what exactly happened, the results would no longer be meaningful. It can be assumed that they will change their drinking behavior as soon as they know the aim of the experiment.

Especially with Field trials, where subjects are influenced online on websites, in shops and supermarkets or at work, there is usually no information or consent. Not after that either.

Here is an example as well.

Research example: Areni and Kim, 1993

Under one fully biological test situation the participants do not even know that they are participating in an experiment. This is difficult to implement in the laboratory, so this favorable situation will mainly be found in the field. The reactivity of the test participants is of course to be set at zero, which is optimal for the informative value of the results.

A good example of such a fully biotic test situation is the study by Areni and Kim on the influence of music on the price acceptance of wine in gastronomy (Areni and Kim, 1993).

procedure: In a wine shop, classical music and pop music from the top forties were randomly played alternately. Among other things, the purchasing behavior of customers was surveyed.

Results: With classical music, more wine was bought and, above all, much more expensive wine was bought. Customers were spending more than twice as much money on classical music under the condition. Apparently classical music activates areas in the brain that are associated with value for money and luxury.

Here, too, prior information to the participants would have totally destroyed the informative value. Customers are also not informed about the attempt after the visit because they could then influence other people before they enter the store. When the experiment is over, the customers are long gone and can no longer be informed.

Conclusion: Ethical guiding principles are important and provide orientation. But they are not the only thing that matters. In concrete research practice, psychogens weigh up ethical principles and an interest in meaningful results.

The last section gives hints for books for further study.

Psychology and Ethics: Literature and Books

Looking for one Book on psychology and ethics? Here are some current literature tips:

If you only think of research when it comes to ethics and business psychology, you have a very narrow perspective. Can business psychology be indifferent to what happens to its findings in practice? The next chapter on this.