Risks of Research: Physical Harm, Psychological Abuse & Legal Jeopardy

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 many ways a researcher can harm a participant. This lesson explores the possible harmful actions of researchers, as well as ways to avoid these harmful actions. Updated: 01/29/2020

Risk Means Possible

Psychological experiments come with a certain level of risk. Even in the best of circumstances and with the best intentions, something might happen to someone. We will look at some simple experiments and how they might cause physical, psychological, legal and other harm, as well as some possible ways to stop the harm.

Physical Harm

While it seems very strange that a person might have physical harm done to them during the course of a psychological experiment, it is not as implausible as you might think. We will define physical harm as pain, injury, illness or impairment caused by another.

Starting off with a simple experiment, let's say you are a researcher and are curious as to the effects of exercise on a person's mood. You assign a light, medium and intense workout regime to your subjects. If you do not have a medical doctor to consult with and you had a person with a heart or blood pressure issue assigned to an intense workout, then the resulting damage to their body is squarely on your shoulders.

One way to avoid physically harming your participants is to take an extensive history and provide highly detailed information about the experiment. The history might help you select individuals who may have preexisting conditions and remove them from the study. Presenting highly detailed information about the experiment prior to conducting it will help an individual decide whether he or she wants to join. If you are running an experiment with physical exertion or risk to the human body, it would be wise to include additional information so that people aware of their conditions can opt out of the experiment.

Psychological Harm

Psychological harm could be defined as emotional or cognitive disturbances resulting from another's actions. Psychological studies often probe into the dark places of the human mind, asking things that wouldn't make polite conversation topics. Normal people don't ask about another's sexual abuse history and other painful experiences, but psychologists do. And, in the quest to understand, it is not difficult for a researcher to overreach and push too hard to get an answer.

There are other ways to cause harm. For example, let's say you as a researcher are curious as to the effects of exposing people to loud noise and bright lights when taking a test. Your goal is to frighten them and see how much it impairs their test taking ability. Most healthy participants will be able to handle this, and when later informed of why this was done and given some time to calm their nerves, they will be fine. However, the harm comes into play with the portion of the population that might suffer from continued fear and anxiety following the study.

A way to avoid psychological harm is by having a researcher debrief the participants to ensure they do not suffer from continued psychological harm. Debriefing means a researcher provides prompt opportunity for participants to obtain information about the nature, results and conclusion of the study, as well as taking reasonable steps to correct misconceptions. This allows participants who might be suffering after the experiment a chance to return back to normal or at least get directed to a person who can help them.

Legal Harm

A growing area of concern is the interaction of psychology with the legal system. Many researchers can find themselves in ethical and legal quandaries when presented with a subpoena, which is a legal document requesting you to appear in court. While a subpoena is not likely for most experiments, if you are looking into things like sexual abuse, drug use or criminal activity, then you may cause the participants legal harm. Legal harm can be defined as causing an interaction between the participant and the court system.

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