Ethical implications of research studies and theory - Issues and debates

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

Ethical implications of research studies and theory
Issues and debates


Before and during the carrying out of research studies psychologists should consider the ethical implications that their research might incur. It would not be acceptable to claim ’Well, I didn’t know that was going to happen’ if an ethically unacceptable, but foreseeable, consequence was to occur. Therefore all reasonable steps should be taken to ensure that negative ethical implications do not occur. As well as ensuring that informed consent has been gained, that the right to withdraw has clearly been made, that no deceit has been used, that no harm to participants will occur, that full briefings and debriefings have occurred and that anonymity and confidentiality have been ensured, researchers should ensure other researchers adhere to ethical guidelines, that no inducements to participate are given and, possibly most importantly, that issues of social sensitivity have been considered. Social sensitivity refers to psychological research that has wider ethical implications that impact outside of the narrow research context. Such considerations include the impact of findings upon participants, their family and friends, upon researchers and the institutions they represent, as well as groups of people, such as cultural and sub-cultural ones, who may also be impacted upon. Ethical committees can be useful in considering potential ethical implications.


Fig 8.5 It is important for psychologists to consider the ethical implications of their research, as it can have far-reaching social consequences

Focal study

Hamer et al. (1993) assessed the role of genetics in male homosexuality. Incidence rates of male homosexuality were assessed in families of 114 homosexual male participants. DNA linkage analysis was also conducted on 40 families that had two gay brothers and no evidence of maternal transmission. It was found that increased rates of same-sex orientation were found in the maternal uncles and male cousins of participants, but not in their fathers or paternal relatives. DNA analysis revealed a positive correlation between homosexual orientation and the inheritance of genetic markers on the X chromosome in 64 per cent of participants. Hamer concluded that male homosexuality was genetic in origin and used the term ’gay gene’ to describe this. His speculation that his research would lead to greater tolerance of homosexuals did not occur; instead there were calls for screening of foetuses and aborting of ’gay’ ones. Hamer had not considered the social sensitivity of his research.


• Yerkes (1915) found on tests of his design that white Americans had a higher IQ than black people and immigrants. But the tests were flawed as they were based on white American culture. The findings were used to justify using black people as ’cannon fodder’ in the First World War, which was highly socially insensitive.

• Perry (2012) claims that in Milgram’s famous 1963 study of obedience, debriefing of participants (he eventually used nearly 3,000 participants) did not always occur, as he thought debriefings might confound his results. If true, this would have resulted in highly unethical levels of harm.

• Harlow (1959, 1965) performed a series of experiments that resulted in terrible levels of damage to the infant monkey participants. Harlow suffered from depression and alcoholism, which may have stimulated his interest in the origins of mental disorders, with the accusation being that his co-workers knew this was fuelling his unethical research and so should have stopped him.

Positive evaluation

Image The code of ethics governed by the British Psychological Society together with university ethics boards means that ethical implications of research have to be considered if research is to be conducted. Stringent guidelines are in place to protect all people who may be involved in the process. The guidelines have become more careful as time has passed so the chances of research causing problems has been reduced.

Negative evaluation

Image Sometimes it is not possible to see what the effects of research might be on the researcher, the participants and society. This makes it hard to judge. It is also not an objective decision, so there is potential for bias from within the decision makers. This means that socially sensitive research still causes problems from time to time.

Image The ethical guidelines set for research permission are seen by some to be too strict. There are areas of research which could elicit helpful findings that could benefit a lot of people. However, the research cannot be conducted due to the research process potentially causing issues for the participants or researcher. Reaching a balance is therefore problematic.

Practical application

The main practical application of the consideration of ethical implications is that it has led to research that is conducted in a much more sensitive manner, which has resulted in the protection of the health and dignity of participants, as well as the reputation of psychology.