When using human beings in psychological research, questions have to be immediately asked about the dignity and rights of participants. The need for some guidelines set in stone with unambiguous meanings lead to the development of the ethical principles that underlie all psychological research today, but to what extent are these guidelines dealing with the major ethical issues involved in social influence research today? The work of Milgram in particular raised many ethical issues, testing these against the new guidelines set by the British Psychological Society in 2000 will show some kind of indication to the effectiveness of them for future social influence research.
One of the many concerns with Milgrams experiment was the inability of participants to give fully informed consent. Without this, it can prove very psychologically damaging, as participants don’t know to what they are entering and what to mentally and physically expect. With long term effects also evident with such symptoms of anxiety, stress and damaged self-esteem. Within the BPS there are various consenting instructions and rules to the manner in which consent should be asked. However this proves impossible with some social influence research such as Milgram, as the essential element is the deception involved.
With this ruling there are also many ways in which scientist can go around the rulings with asking consent in other manners. Such manners in which to avoid direct consent include presumptive consent asking large random members of the general public and introducing them to the research design and see if they would agree with the experiment if they were in the position of the participant. Problems with this kind of consent can often be the large group sampled will not represent the views of the selected group and different people will react differently when confronted with different psychological and physical problems.
Another manner in which consent can be asked is prior general consent, where they are told that in some experiments participants are misinformed of the true purpose of the study. However with some types of deception, consequences are more damaging than others. The amount of discomfort or anger shown by the participants after it is revealed to them in the debrief of the experiment is normally a true guide to this. Though this is often seemed as too late as the damage has taken place to the participant. Debriefing participants after an unethical experiment though does not make it become ethical.
In order to evaluate how the guidelines ensure that the ethical issues are dealt with we must look at the qualitative and quantative findings and opinions of participants after being debriefed in Milgram’s experiment. Eighty-four per cent replied that they were glad they had been involved. Seventy-four per cent said that they had learned something of personal importance. However all these findings do not show complete satisfaction in the manner of which the experiment was designed, which then leads to asking the question do the costs of this research outweigh the overall benefits.
One point three per cent reported negative feelings; though to counter argue this one-year after the study a university psychiatrist interviewed the forty participants and reported no evident of emotional harm that could be attributed to the participation in the study. So in this study, results proved positive but this is not always the case. Along with the ethical guidelines, ethical committees help represent the views of both of lay people and other psychiatrists to try and prevent this.
When evaluating previous work conducted it is often a lot easier to say in hindsight from participants’ feedback whether the experiment can be morally and ethically justified. The benefit though to the guidelines is evident as they can refer to previous experiments and to the manner they were conducted, updating regularly to take account for change in society. Unfortunately despite this, new experiments may challenge other ethical issues that previous studies have not. So the cost-benefits dilemma is not easy to predict either costs or benefits before a study begins.
Guidelines to the experiments though have received negative ideas directed towards them and have been criticised for being too vague and difficult to apply to different experiments. Acting only as a guide with no sufficient penalties for breaking them. Which undermines the whole ethical manner in which physiatrists are respected in the way they operate and experiment in today’s society. Other condemnations include the guidelines having a limited scope, focusing on the investigator and participant and ignoring the role they play in society. Which in the large scale of things may cause research to perpetuate negative stereotypes of certain groups.
However positives from the research can include the changing of thinking and attitudes on certain issues reducing discrimination as we learn more about cultures and people in general. Such as in Milgram’s research we now understand that Germans as a group of people are not in particular more than any other nation are obedient to an authoritive figure. Other evaluations of the guidelines include researchers using informed consent but seeking to allay the fears of participants and not informing them of all the potential risks. The guidelines when used in this way can only benefit the researcher rather than looking after the needs of the participants.
Overall I feel that the ethical guidelines do not guarantee ethical practice as we can see with more recent studies such as Zimbardo. Ethical codes have to be implemented consciously for this to happen, but lack in consistency is clear as guidelines are drawn up by different countries and vary in depth and breath, as there is no universally accepted set of guidelines. Furthermore our views of what is orally and ethically acceptable are on going changed and so the guidelines should represent this and change with the times and be updated regularly.