Ethical Issues and Guidelines in Psychology
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Ethical Issues and Guidelines in Psychology

Philip Banyard,Cara Flanagan

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eBook - ePub

Ethical Issues and Guidelines in Psychology

Philip Banyard,Cara Flanagan

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Über dieses Buch

How do we know right from wrong, good from bad, help from hindrance, and how can we judge the behavior of others?

Ethics are the rules and guidelines that we use to make such judgements. Often there are no clear answers, which make this subject both interesting and potentially frustrating. In this book the authors offer readers the opportunity to develop and express their own opinions in relation to ethics in psychology.

There are a number of famous many psychological studies that appear to have been harmful or cruel to the people or animals who took part in them. For example, memory researchers carried out studies on a man who had no memory for over forty years, but because he had no memory, he was never able to agree to the studies. Is this a reasonable thing to do to someone? Comparative psychologist Harry Harlow found that he could create severe and lasting distress in monkeys by keeping them in social isolation. Is this a reasonable thing to do even if we find out useful things about human distress?If you were able to use psychological techniques to break someone down so that they revealed information that was useful to your government would you do it? If so, why and if not, why not? These ethical issues are not easy to resolve and the debates continue as we encounter new dilemmas.

The book uses many examples of psychological research to look at

  • key ethical issues

  • ethical guidelines of psychologists

  • socially sensitive research

  • ethics in applied psychology

  • the use of animals in research

This book will be essential reading for and undergraduate and pre-undergraduate students studying psychology and students of other subjects concerned with ethics.

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In this chapter we will look at what we mean by ethics. We will consider an array of terms such as morals, ethical issues, ethical guidelines, human rights, ethical relativism and utilitarianism, to name but a few. These can be easily confused by the reader (and by authors to be fair) but we will try and work our way through as best we can in order to better understand how psychologists develop their ideas of right and wrong and how we end up with the ethical codes that guide our behaviour. First though, look below at two examples of scientific studies that have raised some serious ethical concerns.

The Tuskegee experiment

In 1932 the US Public Health Service began an investigation into the long-term effects of untreated syphilis. The researchers promised 400 men free treatment for ‘bad blood’ – a polite word for syphilis which was rife at that time in the state of Alabama. The Tuskegee experiment lasted for 40 years and was finally exposed by a journalist, Jean Heller, in 1972. It emerged that there had never been any intention to treat the men suffering from syphilis. The aim of the study was to observe the natural course of the disease. Untreated syphilis can lead to mental illness and early death, and it is estimated that between 28 and 100 of the men died as a result of their syphilis. It is also likely that many of the men passed on the disease to partners and children. It may not surprise you to know that the men were all black and all poor. These men were duped. They were offered incentives to participate: free physical examinations, free rides to and from the clinics, hot meals on examination days, free treatment for minor ailments, and a guarantee that a sum of $50 would be paid when they died. They were given a medication but it was just something for the common cold (Jones 1993).
Why did the researchers do it? Perhaps they felt it was important to record objective data about syphilis and the value of this research should justify the liberties they took. With retrospect this has been called ‘America’s dirty little secret’ as well as ‘America’s Nuremberg’. The reference to Nuremberg is that this was where Nazi war criminals were tried, some for their participation in medical experiments without the consent of patients (we will discuss this shortly).
What happened to the men from Tuskegee, and their survivors? After the study was publicised in 1972 the participants sued the US government and an out-of-court settlement was made to the men or their surviving relatives. In 1997 President Clinton gave an official apology.
One important outcome of the Tuskegee experiment, and some other medical experiments, has been the introduction of stricter ethical standards. It made officials aware of the potential for harm in scientific research and of researchers’ responsibilities.
The case study of HM appears in many introductory psychology texts. It concerns a man who lost the ability to remember information after a brain operation. He is very famous in psychology and ‘he has probably had more words written about him than any other case in neurological or psychological history’ (Ogden and Corkin 1991:195).
HM is always given initials to protect his identity, though that might seem ironic after you read about what the psychologists did to him. He was born in 1926 and had a head injury at the age of 7 that started a lifetime of epileptic seizures. These seizures got worse over the years and in his mid twenties he was having uncontrolled grand mal attacks (health-threatening seizures). It was proposed to attempt a brain operation to a cure the epilepsy and a surgeon called Scoville performed the first ‘bilateral medial temporal lobe resection’ in the world (an operation that involved cutting out that part of HM’s brain). On the good side, HM survived the operation and his epilepsy was now less damaging, but on the very big downside he had profound retrograde and anterograde amnesia. More precisely, he had lost much of his memory for the ten years prior to the operation (retrograde amnesia), and even more damagingly, he had lost the ability to store new information (anterograde amnesia). He had a memory span of just a few minutes, so he was effectively waking up every few minutes not knowing where he was or who he was talking to:
[The first psychological examination] was performed on April 26, 1955. The memory defect was immediately apparent. The patient gave the date as March, 1953, and his age as 27. Just before coming into the examining room he had been talking to Dr. Karl Pribram, yet he had no recollection of this at all and denied that anyone had spoken to him. In conversation, he reverted constantly to boyhood events and seemed scarcely to realize that he had had an operation. (Scoville and Milner 1957:16)
This was clearly a disaster for HM though he probably never understood that because he could never learn what happened to him, or if he did he would forget it within a couple of minutes. This was a tragedy for HM, but an opportunity for psychologists who became aware of the case. They queued up to study HM’s memory, assessing it with all kinds of tests and checking out a wide range of hypotheses concerning the theoretical distinctions between long-term and short-term memory, and between explicit and implicit memory. They used all sorts of stimuli including electric shocks and white noise (for a review see Corkin 1984, or Parkin 1996). One of ‘the most striking characteristics is that he rarely complains about anything 
 is always agreeable and co-operative to the point that if 
 asked to sit in a particular place he will do so indefinitely’ (Corkin 1984:251). In other words he was an ideal subject of study.
The tests continued for 40 years until HM was in his late sixties and his mental faculties were starting to show a general deterioration. One of the psychologists wrote of the major contribution this work had made to our understanding of memory and commented ‘the fact that he has no conscious memory of this work does not in any way detract from the debt we owe him’ (Ogden and Corkin 1991). The story of HM is commonly presented without comment in psychology books, but ask yourself this: how did HM give consent for the 40 years of constant experimentation? He did not know what was being done to him or even who was doing it. Is this ground-breaking science or cruel exploitation of a man whose life has been ruined by experimental brain surgery? Are the benefits of this research outweighed by the costs? An interesting and disturbing footnote is that the tragedy of HM is often presented as a unique case but the operation was carried out on a number of people with psychiatric conditions who also experienced memory loss (Scoville and Milner 1957). This raises a further ethical issue because it is possible to make a mistake and carry out an operation with unforeseen consequences but after the first one, the consequences must have been expected.

Ethical issues

These two cases highlight some central ethical issues: First there is the issue of informed consent, which refers to the idea that any participant in an experiment should be informed about what the research entails and asked formally to consent to take part. This basic human right was first recognised by the Nuremberg trials. During World War II (1939–45) Nazi doctors conducted various experiments on prisoners. For example, the doctors tested their reactions to fatal diseases such as typhoid, and to extreme temperatures by immersing them in freezing water to see how long it would take for them to die. After the war a ten-point code (Nuremberg Code) was produced which has formed the basis for many contemporary ethical codes in both medical and behavioural research (Box 1.1).
The second issue raised by the two studies above is the one of costs versus benefits. All researchers believe that their research offers potential benefits and they recognise that there are certain costs. The difficulty is in assessing the costs and benefits, and then deciding whether the research is justified. In the case of medical research, it is
Box 1.1 The Nuremberg Code (1946)
1. The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential.
2. The experiment should yield fruitful results for the good of society, that cannot be obtained by other means.
3. The experiment should be based on previous research so that the anticipated results can justify the research.
4. All unnecessary physical and mental suffering should be avoided.
5. No experiment should be conducted where there is reason to believe that death or disabling injury may be the result.
6. The degree of risk should also be less than the potential humanitarian importance of the research.
7. Adequate precautions should be in place to protect the subjects against any possible injury.
8. Exper...


  1. Routledge Modular Psychology
  2. Contents
  3. Illustrations
  4. Acknowledgements
  5. 1 Introduction
  6. 2 Ethical issues in human research
  7. 3 Ethical principles and guidelines
  8. 4 Ethical issues in different kinds of research
  9. 5 Socially sensitive research
  10. 6 Psychology in practice
  11. 7 Psychological research with non-human animals
  12. 8 Study aids
  13. Glossary
  14. Notes
  15. References
  16. Index