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Study notes

Ethical Issues of Psychological Investigation

  • Levels: AS, A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Ethics are a key part of psychological investigation, as researchers have the responsibility to ensure that their practice is morally correct; ill practice could lead to banning from further practice as a psychologist.

There are a number of important issues that researchers should be mindful of when undertaking investigations, with regards to the selection and subsequent treatment of their participants:

Confidentiality

Participants should remain anonymous so that data cannot be identified as theirs (e.g. their names should be withheld when data is reported).

Informed consent

Participants must be briefed on objectives of the investigation and what will be required of them should they take part. In turn they must accept these conditions to proceed, and be put under no pressure to do so.

Deception

Generally, participants should not be misled during an investigation. However, sometimes participants need to be unaware of the true aims of an investigation - or even that they are participating in a study - to yield results that are considered valid (i.e. the data is a true reflection of what was supposed to be measured). This emphasises the need for participants to be debriefed at end of the study.

Debriefing

When a study ends, participants should be told the true motivations behind the investigation, and given the opportunity to clarify any misunderstandings with the researchers. It is also essential to ensure that the participants leave having not suffered long-lasting negative physical or mental effects, particularly where deception (see above) was utilised for the purposes of the experiment. Having checked that participants are in a positive state of health, they should also be notified of relevant services such as counseling to seek, if partaking in the study presents negative effects.

Right to withdraw

As part of their briefing prior to giving consent to partake, participants must be informed that they can leave the study at any point if they wish, and are under no obligation to disclose a reason why if they do.

Protection of participants

It is the responsibility of the researcher to ensure that participants are not caused any long-term physical or mental damage. For instance, it may be that participants are temporarily caused distress, although research will be pre-approved by an ethics committee to ensure this is sufficiently minimized, and researchers are expected to take participants through a detailed debriefing (see debriefing).

Working with animals

If non-human animals are to be used in an investigation, researchers can only use species that are considered scientifically suitable according to ethical guidelines. Procedures that could cause physical or mental harm should be avoided where possible, and it is encouraged that investigations take place in their natural environment. Animals must be properly cared for if the study requires them to kept captive.

There are some instances where it is deemed that the costs do not override the benefits of conducting some research. However, it should be appreciated that these ethical guidelines should always be carefully considered when scrutinising whether a study is ethically acceptable to be carried out.

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