What is Informed Consent? - Definition & Example

Instructor: Chris Clause
In this lesson, you will learn what informed consent is, why it is an important part of ethical research and how it can protect you from harm. Following this lesson, you will be given a chance to test your knowledge with a short quiz.

Informed Consent: Definition

To best understand the concept of informed consent, you really just need to examine the two individual words, which comprise the concept itself. Let's look at the word consent first. Consent more or less means permission, so in the context of psychological research, by giving the researcher consent you are granting your permission to participate and subject yourself to the methodology of the research project. But, don't forget we aren't just talking about consent here; we're talking about informed consent. What does it mean to be informed? Well, at a minimum, it means a person should be aware of potential risks or harm that might come as a result of participating. I'm sure you can think of a time where you agreed to do something and later thought, 'Wait a second I didn't realize I signed up for this!' Guess what? You might have given consent, but you were probably not necessarily fully informed.

Why Does Informed Consent Matter?

In the world of psychology, learning about human behavior and mental processes is most often accomplished by designing and executing controlled research projects. Since psychological research is all about better understanding the human experience, what better source of gathering this information than from humans themselves, right? While human participants in research might be the best source of information, and in turn make the best research participants, researchers have to always keep the best interest of the participants in mind, because even though they make the best research subjects, they are, after all, living, breathing people. Some research projects might involve risks or potential harm to the participants, so making sure that the people participating in the research not only give consent, but give informed consent is a critical component to ensuring the research project is ethical.

Historical Perspective

The need to ensure that ethical practices were a part of the research process came to the forefront of public discussion following World War II. After the fall of the Nazi regime in Germany, it was discovered that Nazi military doctors were using prisoners as guinea pigs for a host of harmful and deadly 'experiments.' Even though the overwhelming majority of the psychological research being conducted in the U.S. didn't rise to the extreme level of what was happening to the Nazi prisoners, what happened in Germany illuminated the need to establish a set of ethical standards for research. Out of that need developed a system of checks and balances to review and approve the design of research projects before they are conducted. Several key components of ethical research were identified, with informed consent being one of the primary requirements.

Since a lot of research is done at universities, all research universities developed their own internal review processes. The Intuitional Review Board (IRB) is a group of people affiliated with each university who are knowledgeable of research design and ethical standards in research. So, the researcher submits his or her plans to IRB, and if the IRB says it is OK, then the research project can continue. A lot of research is also done outside of the university setting, oftentimes by private for-profit corporations. While it isn't the IRB that these corporations submit their research proposals to, they do have their own internal ethical standards review process within the corporation, which operates in a similar fashion to the university IRB system. Whether it's an IRB or an ethics review panel at a corporation, informed consent is one thing that must be included in the present-day research design process.

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