Are ethics preventing the progression of research in psychology?


I believe that ethical guidelines are acting as a barrier, preventing researchers from delving deeper into psychological facts and information. Surely knowledge is of greater significant importance than ethics? In modern day society, the laws surrounding ethics are becoming stricter, whereas in the past, a lack of ethical concern has given way to some of the most ground breaking studies in psychological history. I am referring to the studies of Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo, whose results opened our eyes to unimaginable ideas. Now, if their experiments had been blocked by their concern for human rights, would we know what we now know today?

Milgram’s 1963 study of obedience made the public aware of what humans are capable of when it comes to obedience to authority.  Many ethical issues surrounded this study; his participants were deceived, which also leads to there being a lack of informed consent. It has been argued that Milgram’s participants were subjected to physiological harm, with some suffering from great levels of distress. In situations like this, we have to ask ourselves the question, do the costs outweigh the benefits?

Are we being too careful? I believe that we are. Sometimes sacrifices have to made in order to make new discoveries, not just in psychology but in all aspects of the world. I do understand that there are two sides to this never ending argument, how would we feel if our human rights were breeched? It’s perfectly easy to preach about how ethics are getting in the way of research, yet once we put ourselves in the position of the participants, we start to see things in a very different way. However, Milgram did a post-experiment survey to discover how his participants felt about being deceived. Quite surprisingly, 84% of Milgram’s participants were glad to have participated, stating that they learned a lot about themselves.

The British Psychological Society (BPS) provides ethical guidelines that are designed to help psychologists know what is acceptable during an experiment. For further information follow this link. These guidelines are regularly updated, meaning that more rules are coming into place to help prevent ethical issues arising. This therefore means that it is becoming increasingly difficult for any psychologist to carry out an investigation that will be as revealing or shocking as those of Milgram and Zimbardo.

In my opinion, ethics are becoming too much of an influence over scientific research. Don’t get me wrong, not all experiments should be allowed to take place. A distinction needs to be made between investigations that truly are too dangerous and need to be stopped, and those that are worth taking risks for.



6 responses »

  1. I really like the way you question yourself, and caused me to question my perspective! I recognise the importance of ethics in protecting the participants, but I do agree with your point that some research has been stopped unreasonably. However I think researchers should have clear boundaries when it comes to ethics. If there are lesser boundaries, who knows how far a Utilitarian viewpoint could be taken during research, and how immoral research could become. A main aim of psychology is to improve the quality of people’s lives. If at any point the research has more of a negative impact upon the participants than the results of research could improve the quality of human life, should it be questioned?

    • Overall, I do agree with the point that you have made, however, as Samantha points out, in some circumstances, the costs may outweigh the benefits. Yes on the one hand, harm may be inflicted on a few individuals, however the results discovered may help improve the welfare of a much larger population. For example, although studies carried out by Milgram and Zimbardo were unethical, they did help pave the way for explaining human behaviour in certain circumstances.

    • Thank you for your comment, I am glad that I helped you question your own view! I completely understand your argument and would just like to add that I wasn’t stating that all experiments should ignore ethics, just the select few that could be very important. I understand that ethics are necessary, just maybe they are becoming a bit too strict.

  2. Ethics can restrict psychological research, but perhaps they can be ignored for important research, because they are only guidelines. They are still important though, because without any ethical guidelines then participants of research could suffer from what they’re put through.

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