Ethics of Scientific Psychology

Diagram of the Milgram Experiment in which the “teacher” (T) was asked to deliver a (supposedly) painful electric shock to the “learner”(L). Would this experiment be approved by a review board today? [Image: Fred the Oyster,, CC BY-SA 4.0,]

Psychology differs somewhat from the natural sciences such as chemistry in that researchers conduct studies with human research participants. Because of this there is a natural tendency to want to guard research participants against potential psychological harm. For example, it might be interesting to see how people handle ridicule but it might not be advisable to ridicule research participants.

Scientific psychologists follow a specific set of guidelines for research known as a code of ethics. There are extensive ethical guidelines for how human participants should be treated in psychological research (Diener & Crandall, 1978; Sales & Folkman, 2000). Following are a few highlights:

  • Informed consent. In general, people should know when they are involved in research, and understand what will happen to them during the study. They should then be given a free choice as to whether to participate.
  • Confidentiality. Information that researchers learn about individual participants should not be made public without the consent of the individual.
  • Privacy. Researchers should not make observations of people in private places such as their bedrooms without their knowledge and consent. Researchers should not seek confidential information from others, such as school authorities, without consent of the participant or his or her guardian.
  • Benefits. Researchers should consider the benefits of their proposed research and weigh these against potential risks to the participants. People who participate in psychological studies should be exposed to risk only if they fully understand these risks and only if the likely benefits clearly outweigh the risks.
  • Deception. Some researchers need to deceive participants in order to hide the true nature of the study. This is typically done to prevent participants from modifying their behavior in unnatural ways. Researchers are required to “debrief” their participants after they have completed the study. Debriefing is an opportunity to educate participants about the true nature of the study.


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