Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Discuss how research involving human subjects is regulated
  • Summarize the processes of informed consent and debriefing
  • Explain how research involving animal subjects is regulated

Today, scientists agree that good research is ethical in nature and is guided by a basic respect for human dignity and safety. However, as you will read in the feature box, this has not always been the case. Modern researchers must demonstrate that the research they perform is ethically sound. This section presents how ethical considerations affect the design and implementation of research conducted today.


Any experiment involving the participation of human subjects is governed by extensive, strict guidelines designed to ensure that the experiment does not result in harm. Any research institution that receives federal support for research involving human participants must have access to an institutional review board (IRB). The IRB is a committee of individuals often made up of members of the institution’s administration, scientists, and community members (Figure 1.20). The purpose of the IRB is to review proposals for research that involves human participants. The IRB reviews these proposals with the principles mentioned above in mind, and generally, approval from the IRB is required in order for the experiment to proceed.

A photograph shows a group of people seated around tables in a meeting room.

Figure 1.20 An institution’s IRB meets regularly to review experimental proposals that involve human participants. (credit: modification of work by Lowndes Area Knowledge Exchange (LAKE)/Flickr)

An institution’s IRB requires several components in any experiment it approves. For one, each participant must sign an informed consent form before they can participate in the experiment. An informed consent form provides a written description of what participants can expect during the experiment, including potential risks and implications of the research. It also lets participants know that their involvement is completely voluntary and can be discontinued without penalty at any time. Furthermore, the informed consent guarantees that any data collected in the experiment will remain completely confidential. In cases where research participants are under the age of 18, the parents or legal guardians are required to sign the informed consent form.

Link to Learning

Visit this website to see an example of a consent form.

While the informed consent form should be as honest as possible in describing exactly what participants will be doing, sometimes deception is necessary to prevent participants’ knowledge of the exact research question from affecting the results of the study. Deception involves purposely misleading experiment participants in order to maintain the integrity of the experiment, but not to the point where the deception could be considered harmful. For example, if we are interested in how our opinion of someone is affected by their attire, we might use deception in describing the experiment to prevent that knowledge from affecting participants’ responses. In cases where deception is involved, participants must receive a full debriefing upon conclusion of the study—complete, honest information about the purpose of the experiment, how the data collected will be used, the reasons why deception was necessary, and information about how to obtain additional information about the study.

Dig Deeper

Ethics and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study

Unfortunately, the ethical guidelines that exist for research today were not always applied in the past. In 1932, poor, rural, black, male sharecroppers from Tuskegee, Alabama, were recruited to participate in an experiment conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service, with the aim of studying syphilis in black men (Figure 2.21). In exchange for free medical care, meals, and burial insurance, 600 men agreed to participate in the study. A little more than half of the men tested positive for syphilis, and they served as the experimental group (given that the researchers could not randomly assign participants to groups, this represents a quasi-experiment). The remaining syphilis-free individuals served as the control group. However, those individuals that tested positive for syphilis were never informed that they had the disease.

While there was no treatment for syphilis when the study began, by 1947 penicillin was recognized as an effective treatment for the disease. Despite this, no penicillin was administered to the participants in this study, and the participants were not allowed to seek treatment at any other facilities if they continued in the study. Over the course of 40 years, many of the participants unknowingly spread syphilis to their wives (and subsequently their children born from their wives) and eventually died because they never received treatment for the disease. This study was discontinued in 1972 when the experiment was discovered by the national press (Tuskegee University, n.d.). The resulting outrage over the experiment led directly to the National Research Act of 1974 and the strict ethical guidelines for research on humans described in this chapter. Why is this study unethical? How were the men who participated and their families harmed as a function of this research?

A photograph shows a person administering an injection.

Figure 1.21 A participant in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study receives an injection.

Link to Learning

Visit this website to learn more about theTuskegee Syphilis Study.


Many psychologists conduct research involving animal subjects. Often, these researchers use rodents (Figure 1.22) or birds as the subjects of their experiments—the APA estimates that 90% of all animal research in psychology uses these species (American Psychological Association, n.d.). Because many basic processes in animals are sufficiently similar to those in humans, these animals are acceptable substitutes for research that would be considered unethical in human participants.

A photograph shows a rat.

Figure 1.22 Rats, like the one shown here, often serve as the subjects of animal research.

This does not mean that animal researchers are immune to ethical concerns. Indeed, the humane and ethical treatment of animal research subjects is a critical aspect of this type of research. Researchers must design their experiments to minimize any pain or distress experienced by animals serving as research subjects.

Whereas IRBs review research proposals that involve human participants, animal experimental proposals are reviewed by an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). An IACUC consists of institutional administrators, scientists, veterinarians, and community members. This committee is charged with ensuring that all experimental proposals require the humane treatment of animal research subjects. It also conducts semi-annual inspections of all animal facilities to ensure that the research protocols are being followed. No animal research project can proceed without the committee’s approval.

Key Terms

archival research method of research using past records or data sets to answer various research questions, or to search for interesting patterns or relationships

attrition reduction in number of research participants as some drop out of the study over time

cause-and-effect relationship changes in one variable cause the changes in the other variable; can be determined only through an experimental research design

clinical or case study observational research study focusing on one or a few people

confirmation bias tendency to ignore evidence that disproves ideas or beliefs

confounding variable unanticipated outside factor that affects both variables of interest, often giving the false impression that changes in one variable causes changes in the other variable, when, in actuality, the outside factor causes changes in both variables

control group serves as a basis for comparison and controls for chance factors that might influence the results of the study—by holding such factors constant across groups so that the experimental manipulation is the only difference between groups

correlation relationship between two or more variables; when two variables are correlated, one variable changes as the other does

correlation coefficient number from -1 to +1, indicating the strength and direction of the relationship between variables, and usually represented by r

cross-sectional research compares multiple segments of a population at a single time

debriefing when an experiment involved deception, participants are told complete and truthful information about the experiment at its conclusion

deception purposely misleading experiment participants in order to maintain the integrity of the experiment

deductive reasoning results are predicted based on a general premise

dependent variable variable that the researcher measures to see how much effect the independent variable had

double-blind study experiment in which both the researchers and the participants are blind to group assignments

empirical grounded in objective, tangible evidence that can be observed time and time again, regardless of who is observing

experimental group group designed to answer the research question; experimental manipulation is the only difference between the experimental and control groups, so any differences between the two are due to experimental manipulation rather than chance

experimenter bias researcher expectations skew the results of the study

fact objective and verifiable observation, established using evidence collected through empirical research

falsifiable able to be disproven by experimental results

generalize inferring that the results for a sample apply to the larger population

hypothesis (plural: hypotheses) tentative and testable statement about the relationship between two or more variables

illusory correlation seeing relationships between two things when in reality no such relationship exists

independent variable variable that is influenced or controlled by the experimenter; in a sound experimental study, the independent variable is the only important difference between the experimental and control group

inductive reasoning conclusions are drawn from observations

informed consent process of informing a research participant about what to expect during an experiment, any risks involved, and the implications of the research, and then obtaining the person’s consent to participate

Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) committee of administrators, scientists, veterinarians, and community members that reviews proposals for research involving non-human animals

Institutional Review Board (IRB) committee of administrators, scientists, and community members that reviews proposals for research involving human participants

inter-rater reliability measure of agreement among observers on how they record and classify a particular event

longitudinal research studies in which the same group of individuals is surveyed or measured repeatedly over an extended period of time

naturalistic observation observation of behavior in its natural setting

negative correlation two variables change in different directions, with one becoming larger as the other becomes smaller; a negative correlation is not the same thing as no correlation

observer bias when observations may be skewed to align with observer expectations

operational definition description of what actions and operations will be used to measure the dependent variables and manipulate the independent variables

opinion personal judgments, conclusions, or attitudes that may or may not be accurate

participants subjects of psychological research

peer-reviewed journal article article read by several other scientists (usually anonymously) with expertise in the subject matter, who provide feedback regarding the quality of the manuscript before it is accepted for publication

placebo effect people’s expectations or beliefs influencing or determining their experience in a given situation

population overall group of individuals that the researchers are interested in

positive correlation two variables change in the same direction, both becoming either larger or smaller

random assignment method of experimental group assignment in which all participants have an equal chance of being assigned to either group

random sample subset of a larger population in which every member of the population has an equal chance of being selected

reliability consistency and reproducibility of a given result

replicate repeating an experiment using different samples to determine the research’s reliability

sample subset of individuals selected from the larger population

single-blind study experiment in which the researcher knows which participants are in the experimental group and which are in the control group

statistical analysis determines how likely any difference between experimental groups is due to chance

survey list of questions to be answered by research participants—given as paper-and-pencil questionnaires, administered electronically, or conducted verbally—allowing researchers to collect data from a large number of people

theory well-developed set of ideas that propose an explanation for observed phenomena

validity accuracy of a given result in measuring what it is designed to measure

Review Questions

________ is to animal research as ________ is to human research.

  1. informed consent; deception
  4. deception; debriefing

Researchers might use ________ when providing participants with the full details of the experiment could skew their responses.

  1. informed consent
  2. deception
  3. ethics
  4. debriefing

A person’s participation in a research project must be ________.

  1. random
  2. rewarded
  3. voluntary
  4. public

Before participating in an experiment, individuals should read and sign the ________ form.

  1. informed consent
  2. debriefing
  3. IRB
  4. ethics

Critical Thinking Questions

  • Some argue that animal research is inherently flawed in terms of being ethical because unlike human participants, animals do not consent to be involved in research. Do you agree with this perspective? Given that animals do not consent to be involved in research projects, what sorts of extra precautions should be taken to ensure that they receive the most humane treatment possible?
  • At the end of the last section, you were asked to design a basic experiment to answer some question of interest. What ethical considerations should be made with the study you proposed to ensure that your experiment would conform to the scientific community’s expectations of ethical research?

Personal Application Questions

Take a few minutes to think about all of the advancements that our society has achieved as a function of research involving animal subjects. How have you, a friend, or a family member benefited directly from this kind of research?

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