With the university academic year starting up again, a lot of Postgraduate and even undergraduate students are starting to think about research projects for their dissertations. Therefore, at some point, they will need to think about ethics and ethics applications. But why are ethics needed in psychology research? Taking a chapter out of my brand-new Ethics In Psychology book, we explore why ethics are needed in psychology research and what happens without ethical guidelines. The findings will scare you for sure. If you love psychology, research and doing the right thing, you’ll enjoy this podcast episode for sure.
Today’s podcast episode has been sponsored by Ethics In Psychology: A Psychology Student’s And Professional’s Guide To Ethical Research. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it. Also, you can buy the eBook directly from me at https://www.payhip.com/connorwhiteley
Examples Of Unethical Research In Psychology. Extract From Ethics In Psychology COPYRIGHT 2023 Connor Whiteley
To truly understand the dire need for research ethics, we need to look at some of the worst research in recent history so we understand what the ethical codes help to make impossible. And to be honest, even though I say these studies are some of the worst in history, back in the day and when these studies were done they were perfectly normal and this was perfectly okay to do.
And it is that normality about risking people’s lives, mental health and other important aspects that we now take for granted as participants that is the most heart-breaking about this entire topic.
The Tuskegee experiment
Throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic and the vaccine programme, I was watching the news and they were covering the resistance or slight lack of uptake of the vaccine from ethnic minority groups and the main reason the people on the news said, it was because of the historical abuse of black and other communities by the medical industry so there’s a long standing concern and mistrust between the medical and black communities.
However, there was a study mentioned during this news report that helped to explain the distrust very effectively and that was the Tuskegee Experiment.
This was an experiment that happened between 1932 and 1972, a 40-year-long experiment, by the U.S. Public Health Service and during the study they wanted to watch the natural progression of untreated syphilis on poor rural African American men.
In the study, these men were told that they were going to be receiving free health care, and none of them were told that they had syphilis (a deadly condition). Then when treatment for the condition became available in the 1940s, these men were prevented from getting the treatment and they weren’t allowed to get treatment anywhere else in the world for the condition.
All of these men were never ever treated for the condition.
So let me jump in here quickly and just mention that the US Government was perfectly happy for innocent people with a deadly condition to die just to see what would happen.
Just let that sink in for a moment.
The results of the study showed that out of the 399 participants who had the condition before the study began, 28 of them died because of the condition directly. Then another 100 people died because of the related complications.
In addition, 40 of the wives of the participants had become infected as well as 19 of their children were born with congenital syphilis.
As a result of this study, at least 128 died, 40 wives were infected (and I don’t have data at the moment on how many of them died) and 19 children (CHILDREN!) were infected. And to be honest, who knows how many of them died or infected other people.
Also, let me be very clear here, all of these people could have been treated. No one could have died, no wife could have been infected and no children could have been born with congenital syphilis.
But the researchers running the study chose not to do that.
In the end, it took a whistle-blower and 6 very long years before the study was finally terminated, with the ethical issue being here that harm was caused by the researchers denying the participants medical treatment.
And if you’re really interested in the study it should be very easy to find out more information on it.
Personally, I don’t want to read any more on it because I think this is an utter disgrace, and even with me understanding the sheer levels of racism back then, I still think it’s appalling that this was ever allowed to occur.
And that’s why the ethical guidelines had to be introduced.
As well as it is still rather difficult to get a clear picture of what happened in any great detail, but this is probably because of long cover-ups at the highest level. That is honestly just a guess though.
Other Examples of Unethical Research
Come on, you seriously couldn’t have an Ethics In Psychology book without mentioning Milgram, and I partly think that Milgram was one of the most influential figures in the development of the guidelines, simply because his studies were so horrific.
If you want to find out more about Milgram, please check out Social Psychology (including the differences between what was actually found and was reported), but just as a little recap he basically got participants to believe they were electrocuting people and killing them in the end.
And yes, there is a lot of research evidence in Social Psychology that shows there was a lot of psychological damage done to these participants.
Therefore, the ethical issue in this study, and I know this really oversimplifies what he did to people, is he deceived participants to extremely unacceptable levels, and later in the book we’ll talk about what is okay and not when it comes to deception.
However, a little well-known and definitely less clear study actually comes from Elizabeth Loftus, you might remember her as the researcher who does a lot on false memory and other memory research.
Now I will admit I have a lot of respect for Loftus, because she has really helped us to understand how memory works, is flawed and she is a very impressive woman. Yet this study slightly damages her reputation.
This is the “false memories of Jane Doe” case, and if you read my False Allegation book coming out in 2024, this study was meant to pop up but I decided against it.
Anyway, what happened was was that there was a Jane Doe in the USA that claimed that she had remembered in therapy her parents abusing her. Leading to her pressing charges and an academic paper by another researcher was written, with Jane Doe’s name never being revealed.
However, Loftus and another researcher were clever enough to find out her identity. Now I do not support what they did that I’m about to tell you, but I do appreciate the intelligence that would have taken.
Or maybe it was easier than I imagine because the ethical guidelines at the moment or only earlier ones were, so the concept of anonymity might have been weaker.
Yet Loftus and another researcher called Guyer believed that these were false memories so they deceived Jane Doe and interviewed her about her “recovered memories” by talking to her and other people under the premise of something else.
Then the two researchers went away, wrote a paper about Jane Doe that basically said she was a liar and even though Jane Doe’s name was never revealed during this entire process, the victim herself did this when she sued them because of the academic article.
And in the end, it turned out that Jane Doe had actually been abused.
Leading to the question of is it actually ethical for researchers to use information about participants without their consent in an effort to challenge their version of events? And this is even more important because this version of events actually had legal implications.
In addition, this case does raise a lot of interesting questions and ethical issues. For example, does advancing our knowledge about a topic justify using a lack of informed consent on a person for research purposes? Especially as Jane Doe never gave her permission for this article? As well as was it even okay that Loftus and Guyer sought out her personal information when her name had purposefully been used as Jane Doe?
Personally, I don’t think it was, but as you’ll see later on in the book, there are times when it’s perfectly okay to use participant data without consent.
This is why ethics is rather interesting because there are so many grey areas.
Finally, you have the example of the outright fabrication of research data. Like the examples of dodgy researchers from the Replication Crisis which was were researchers found that a lot of the most famous and amazing psychology studies couldn’t be replicated, and the results weren’t real.
They were mere flukes, so you can imagine the amount of damage this did to psychology’s reputation and the issues it caused us. It even caused so much upheaval that Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman (you know from cognitive psychology and thinking biases) sent the following email to John Bargh (who was a key researcher on social priming that a lot of research has basically disproven at this point) in September 2012:
“As all of you know, of course, questions have been raised about the robustness of priming results…. your field is now the poster child for doubts about the integrity of psychological research… people have now attached a question mark to the field, and it is your responsibility to remove it… all I have personally at stake is that I recently wrote a book that emphasizes priming research as a new approach to the study of associative memory…Count me as a general believer… My reason for writing this letter is that I see a train wreck looming.”
Another example of the outright fabrication of data is the massive fraud case at a Dutch University (actually it happened in a number of them) in 2011 because two PhD students of prominent Tilburg University researcher Diederik Stapel realised that their supervisor’s results were amazing and all, but they had never ever seen any data for this and they had never seen their supervisor collect data.
And we have to recognise here that these two people were mere students and they had the balls to go over their supervisor’s head to upper university-level management to reveal their suspicions.
They could have been silenced, kicked off their PhD programme and blackballed from even working in psychology research again.
They had a lot of guts so I completely respect them.
After an investigation by the university, it turned out that Diederik Stapel had made up data for at least 30 of his studies, and these were the papers that made him famous.
And that we understand why ethics are needed so badly, let’s look at how we actually regulate ethics, because come on, they are seriously needed after these horrific studies.
I really hope you enjoyed today’s psychological research podcast episode.
If you want to learn more, please check out:
Ethics In Psychology: A Psychology Student’s And Professional’s Guide To Ethical Research. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it. Also, you can buy the eBook directly from me at https://www.payhip.com/connorwhiteley Patreon for exclusive access and rewards
Have a great day.
Psychological Research Reference
Whiteley, C. (2023) Ethics In Psychology. CGD Publishing. England.
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