Ethical Issues Facing Research Psychologists
Research is a popular method used by psychologists to test hypotheses. However, psychologists cannot purposely bring harm to those people or animals that they study. Subjects involved in a research project are to have their rights and safety respected. In order to do this, psychologists must take ethical considerations into account. The American Psychological Association (APA) has published guidelines to aid psychologists in their ethical decisions. Still, ethical issues are rarely cut and dry; often there is gray area that psychologists must sort through. Some of the issues facing research psychologists are invasion of privacy, deception, and harmful consequences.
The first ethical issue in a study usually involves that of invasion of privacy. A large part of a psychologist’s research involves observation, and many people are sensitive or protective about their personal lives or problems. Yet to obtain information critical to a study, a research psychologist may need to intrude into areas that the subject would prefer to keep private. These areas may include something mild like watching people in a supermarket checkout line to see how many bother to use coupons, or more serious, such as seeking out people with an illegal habit like taking marijuana. A psychologist must devise measures that will allow them to conduct research without infringing on an individual’s right to privacy. Some of the common methods used to do this are keeping participants’ responses anonymous, safeguarding data by not making it public, and following a policy of informed consent, i.e. asking the subject’s permission ahead of time and allowing them to withdraw their results from the study.
Another issue confronting research psychologists is the use of deception to obtain results. On the one hand, if subjects know they’re being studied, they might modify their behavior to cover unfavorable traits from the researcher. This would alter and falsify the results of the study. However, the bottom line is still that the researcher lied to the subjects. To counteract the need to use deception to acquire valid data, after completion of the study psychologists must explain to the subjects what behavior was analyzed, and why deception was used.
A final, and perhaps more disturbing, ethical issue psychologists learn to deal with is that of harmful consequences that subjects may suffer after the study is over. For example, if a psychologist is doing research on fear, he may have to use methods that incite terror into his subjects. Yet if subjects learn to fear opening the front door because a prowler dressed as a salesman may be on the other side, their peace of mind following the study may be disrupted. Since it is sometimes necessary to risk subjects’ welfare to find solutions to a problem, psychologists ask themselves whether a particular project’s benefits would outweigh any harm done. If they decide to proceed with the study, the researcher should first inform the subjects of possible risks, and also follow up on subjects’ wellbeing for an extended period of time to ensure that the subject is not suffering from any harmful consequences of the study.
In order to do effective research, psychologists must confront and resolve ethical issues. Some of the main ones they face are invasion of privacy, deception, and harmful consequences. Research psychologists have formulated precautions to guard against unnecessary ethical conflict. These methods include informing subjects of possible risks before performing the experiment, or notifying participants afterwards if and why any deception was used. Also, allowing subjects to withdraw their input from the study, keeping sources anonymous, and doing follow up checks to ascertain whether a subject is enduring any harmful consequences as a result of the study are important techniques to preserve subjects’ privacy and wellbeing as much as possible.