Conducting Research on People: General Guidelines

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  • 0:06 Psychological Research…
  • 0:50 Origins Of Guidelines
  • 3:35 Rights Of Participants
  • 6:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

There are specific guidelines that must be followed when performing research. These guidelines are there to protect the subject from harm. What do you, as a researcher, have to watch out for when conducting research on people? Why do you need to be so careful?

Psychological Research Participants

There are many ways something can be researched. Not too long ago, animal models were used, with the prototypical white mouse or pigeon being the stand-in for people. After that, there were some failed attempts at computer models. But really, if you're going to study the human mind, there is no greater resource than the human mind.

However, there is a world of difference between studying rats and studying humans. For one thing, you can't keep your human participants in a box (at least not for very long). Over time, the quest for knowledge has made choices that, in hindsight, were questionable at best, horrendous at worse. This led to the development of guidelines.

Origins of Guidelines

There were some unfortunate incidents of abuse by researchers. We began to see ethical codes set in place following World War II with the 1949 Nuremberg Code. Some examples of rules put into place include:

  • Research participants must voluntarily consent; no force or threats are allowed
  • Dangerous or risky research must be based on sound theory and prior animal testing, not just on whims and hunches
  • Research must avoid unnecessary physical and mental suffering
  • A research project cannot go forward if serious injury and/or death are potential outcomes
  • The risk taken with research participants cannot exceed anticipated benefits of results
  • Experiments can be conducted only by scientifically qualified persons
  • Human subjects must be allowed to discontinue their participation at any time
  • Scientists must be prepared to terminate the experiment immediately if there is cause to believe that the continuation will be harmful or result in injury or death

This was because of the atrocities that were used in the name of science in some prisoner of war camps and concentration camps. More specific guidelines emerged in the United States when, in 1972, public disclosure was made of a 40-year government-supported Tuskegee syphilis study. This study involved the non-treatment of 399 African-American, rural men infected with syphilis despite antibiotics being available. The study was intended to examine the effects of untreated syphilis. Untreated, this infection can lead to death.

While the discussed examples primarily relate to medical research, the abuses perpetrated by psychological researchers include placing people in situations where they truly fear they are dying. Other unethical studies include creating long-lasting, psychological harm by maltreatment, abusive research methods, and questionable practices.

In 2002, the American Psychological Association adopted the ninth revision of the Ethics Code, which reflects changes in the field and addresses issues that had been previously unheard of. The Code acts as a guideline that researchers must follow to determine if their study is unethical. One way is by having an Institutional Review Board, or IRB, whose purpose is to ensure protection of the rights of research participants. Specifics of IRB will be discussed in another lesson. However, we can discuss some of the rights you as a participant have or you as a researcher must ensure.

Rights of Participants

Let's say you're participating in a psychological study. Let's say it's something ridiculous, like the effects of trying to study Shakespeare with an avocado balanced on your head. I have no idea why someone would even do that. What rights can you expect as a participant?

First off, the researcher will require your informed consent. This means you are instructed on what will happen during the study, what the possible risks are, and what benefits the researcher hopes to obtain. The key here is 'informed,' since you could simply obtain just consent by having people sign up. The informed part allows the participant to make, well, an informed decision on whether or not to participate.

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