The Ethics of Research

I. Should scientific principles be used to study humans and other animals?

Only if:

A. The potential benefits exceed the potential harm.

B. The potential for harm has been minimized

II. Maximizing benefits

A. Getting a good, useful idea to test.

B. Providing a valid test of that idea. The study should have at least one of the following three types of validity. The type or types needed depend on the research question.

1. Internal validity: The ability to isolate the cause of an effect.

  1. Internal validity is necessary if your research question concerns explaining why a behavior occurs or trying to find out how to manipuluate/control a certain behavior.

  2. Internal validity is unnecessary if your research question concerns describing what people typically do.

  3. The early experimental psychologists who tried to make psychology as much like experimental physics as possible really valued internal validity.

  4. Untrained people usually think that a study has more internal validity than it really has.

2. External validity: The ability to generalize the results to others.

a. External validity is necessary if you are to generalize your results to others.

b. External validity is often not necessary, especially when looking for causes of behavior. Thus, just as a chemist may not care if lab results would hold in a real life setting, a psychologist may not care if the results would hold in a real-life setting.

c. External validity is most important in descriptive research, where you are trying to describe what most people typically do.

d. It is easy to question the external validity of a study: Just ask--

1. "Who were the participants?" Often times, you will find that women, minorities, and non-college students are NOT in the study.

2. "Were there enough participants?"

3. "Was the study conducted in a real-life environment or an artificial one?"

3. Construct validity: Are we dealing with the variables we think we are dealing with?

a. The primary concern of people who devise psychological tests and scales.

b. Not important to radical behaviorists because they don't measure abstract, invisible constructs such as liking, loving, etc.

III. Minimizing harm

A. APA's Standards

B. Pretend to be a research participant

C. Consult with others

IV. Conclusions: Was the Milgram Experiment ethical?

A. Yes

1. The bad outcome (most participants giving severe shocks) was not foreseeable.

2. Milgram probed participants for sings of harm and took steps to undo any possible harm. For example, Milgram made free psychological help available to participants

3. Little evidence of harm (84% of participants said it was a good experience, only 2% regretted being in the study)

4. Milgram debriefed the participants, explaining the purpose of the study and answered all their questions.

5. Very valuable study

a. Important questions: Will we conform to an authority? How can we prevent people from doing things that are against their moral principles?

b. Obtained valid data about the question

B. No

1. Deception

2. No informed consent

3. Study was stressful

4. Participants were not free to quit the study at any time

Back to Chapter 2 Menu