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Ethical issues involved

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When conducting any kind of research, one must be aware of the ethical issues involved. Almost all research in psychology studies human behaviour. Before the experiment is conducted, all subjects are given a brief overview of the experiment but will not be told about the entire experiment and its true purpose. This deception leaves the subjects vulnerable which may arise to ethical issues. Back in 1954, W. Edgar Vinacke, had issues regarding participants being deceived in experiments; participants were exposed to “painful, embarrassing, or worse, experiences” (Vinacke, 1954). Back when obedience research was first conducted, deception was not a common practice in psychological experiments, during a time were ethical guidance was almost non-existent. Many researchers implemented deception into their experiments, why is it necessary for psychologists to use deception in their research? In this essay I will discuss about the use of deception, the consequences of deception, and whether or not the negative impact or implications will outweigh the odds for the greater good of science. Over fifty years ago, one of the most well-known studies of obedience was conducted by Stanley Milgram (1963).

Milgram’s experiment focused on whether people of the public would obey and potentially kill an innocent victim if ordered to do so by a man in uniform or of high authority (Kimmel, 2011). The purpose and use of deception is to ensure the experiment runs smoothly without the main variable affecting the end results of the experiment, if the participant knows the exact details the experiment entails, this may change the overall result of the experiment. In regards to Milgram’s experiment, had the participant known it was a confederate of Milgram’s and that no one involved would actually be hurt beforehand, it would have made the entire experiment pointless. The problem with this experiment was the use of deception; Milgram deceived participants convincing them they were actually shocking real people, due to being unaware of this, participants were under a lot of stress, possibly causing them psychological harm. Sweating, trembling, and stuttering were typical expressions of this emotional disturbance. One unexpected sign of tension—yet to be explained—was the regular occurrence of nervous laughter, which in some Ss developed into uncontrollable seizures (Milgram, 1963).

The benefit of using deception is that information that can be gathered is more valid as opposed to completely informing the participant of the experiment. It offers an opportunity to explore situations that rarely appear in natural manner, but deserved to be due to their high social importance. As much it benefits science the down fall to the use of deception critics respond to is that experiments can be designed and conducted more carefully in order to avoid any ethical issues. Lindsey (29)) accuse researchers using it that it actually represents an easy way to mask their lack of creativity in finding methodological solutions which would be honest to participants, and, consequently, fully ethical (Holman, 2013, p.160). It seems as though researchers only see participants only as a means to an end for the interest of science and do not care at all for the treatment of the innocent person supplying the data.

Although psychologists acknowledge these potential drawbacks, deception will remain a main practice in psychological research. Arguments and debates continue over the use of deception and other ethical issues. Critics argue that deception is a key element of behaviour research; “deception, it is argued, is a necessary evil, often required to provide ‘technical illusions’” (Kimmel, 2011, p.581). Many other ethical issues arise during research this range from consent, debriefing, right to withdraw, confidentiality and the protection of participants. Due to the results, deceptive researches are now far more critically observed within and outside the discipline. At the end or during a deception experiment, several authors concluded that participants displayed negative emotions (Ortmann and Hertwig, 2002). Researchers must be able to protect their participants as much as possible from physical or mental harm; the level of harm should be no greater than in an ordinary everyday life. Failing to do so or comply can result in long term consequences, if the researcher notices any type of distress or emotional disorder during the experiment; they must remove participants from the experiment completely.

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo (1971) constructed a correctional facility in the basement of Stanford University simulating prison life. Zimbardo wanted to confirm whether roles of being guards or prisoners influenced their behaviour in a manner that they thought were correct rather than the use of their own morals and judgement. This experiment was to explain what would happen if all individuality and dignity was stripped from a person, leaving no control over their life. The experiment was due to run for a fortnight but was ceased on the sixth day due to the danger of someone might be mentally or physically damaged, within 36 hours of the experiment a ‘prisoner’ was released because crying, anger and bursts of uncontrollable screams. The participant was seen to be entering stages of deep depression, within a few days after, three others also had to leave after displaying signs of emotional disorder which could have resulted in long lasting consequences (Haney and Zimbardo, 1973).

As deception continues to be employed in research, as mentioned before, all psychologists’ methodology should aim to design their experiments in a way it can eliminate all deception and cover all ethical issues that may arise. Among other ways to avoid ethical issues is that psychologist and participants develop a reciprocal relationship in which the latter may accept certain situations during the study were they may be deceived. With that being said, it may be impossible to completely remove deception from all psychological research as it remains an important tool because of the validity it brings to science.

As most research today performed have strict governmental regulations, daunting ethical guidelines and institutional reviews (Kimmel, 2011), studies that are carried out with the level of deception employed are comparable to that of a white lie to children. Under the level of deception used these days, and the strict guidelines followed, I believe that eliminating deception from psychological research would be foolish because of the possible gains for psychological research. As long as there is careful evaluation of the study and deception is used under appropriate circumstances, there is no reason which it cannot be used for the greater good of science.


*Campbell, D., Sanderson, R. E., & Laverty, S. G. (1964). Characteristics of a conditioned response in human subjects during extinction trials following a single traumatic conditioning trial. The Journal of Abnormal and Social
Psychology, 68(6), 627-639.

Haney, C., Banks, W. C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1973) A study of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison. Naval Research Review, 30, 4-17. Holman, A. (2013). Ethical controversies regarding the use of deception in the psychological research. Revista Romana de Bioetica, 11(1), 153-164.

Kimmel, A. J. (2011, August) Deception in psychological research – a necessary evil? The Psychologist, Vol 24, part 8, 580-585. Retrieved from http://www.thepsychologist.org.uk/archive/archive_home.cfm?volumeID=24&editionID=204&ArticleID=1891 Lindsey, R. T. (1984). Informed consent and deception in psychotherapy research: An ethical analysis. The Counseling Psychologist.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371.

Ortmann, A., & Hertwig, R. (2002). The costs of deception: Evidence from psychology. Experimental Economics, 5(2), 111-131.

Vinacke, W.E. (1954). Deceiving experimental subjects. American Psychologist, 9, 155.

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