What Is Informed Consent in Research? - Definition & Purpose

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  • 0:07 Defining Informed Consent
  • 1:20 Obtaining Informed Consent
  • 1:49 Example
  • 2:35 Purpose of Informed Consent
  • 3:02 Special Considerations
  • 5:55 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.

After you have figured out what you are going to research and have approval to do it, you need informed consent from the participants in your experiment. What is informed consent, and how is it different than regular consent?

Defining Informed Consent

Informed consent is so important that in the 9th revision of the American Psychological Association's Ethical Code it has its own section, 8.02. And, no, you won't be tested on that exact detail. However, it is worth mentioning because informed consent has its own dedicated section. It is that important. Informed consent provides participants with sufficiently detailed information on the study so that they can make an informed, voluntary and rational decision to participate. This includes:

  • The purpose of the study
  • Expected duration
  • Procedures of the study
  • Information on their right to decline or withdraw
  • Foreseeable consequences of withdrawing or declining
  • Potential risk, discomfort or adverse effects
  • Prospective research benefits
  • Incentives, such as payment or rewards
  • Whom to contact for questions

Lastly, as part of obtaining informed consent, a researcher must allow time for questions the participants might have. The answers should provide sufficient information without compromising the study. We will discuss how convoluted this gets with deceptive studies in a second.

Obtaining Informed Consent

All of the previously mentioned aspects must be provided to participants before they are entered into the study. Informed consent must be either documented by written consent or by oral consent in language that is reasonably understandable. Most researchers use a written form that the participants sign and date because there might be problems later on. One can never really predict the future and written proof is valuable in the courtroom setting.


Let's develop an informed consent for a study involving the interaction with others in monkey suits. You're curious to see if the subjects will act differently if speaking to someone in a full monkey suit instead of regular clothes. Your informed consent must have:

  • The purpose is to study a person's interaction with others.
  • That it should last no longer than an hour.
  • The subject can chose to decline or withdraw.
  • That they will not be part of the study if they chose to decline or withdraw.
  • There may be some discomfort or confusion when talking to a person in a monkey suit.
  • How you hope to learn something about how people interact.
  • That each participant will receive a banana for their help.
  • And, your name and contact information if they have any questions afterwards.

Purpose of Informed Consent

A great deal of emphasis in psychology has been placed on respect for people's rights and dignity. It would not be difficult for a researcher to omit the section about how a participant can withdraw from a study. Or worse, the potential harm that may come from someone participating. Can you imagine the legal and financial fallout for failing to inform a subject in our monkey suit experiment about the use of monkey suits when the subject is allergic to monkey suits?

Special Considerations

There are times when the informed consent needs to be modified. We will discuss three unique situations in which informed consent would need to be modified. These are not the only times it would need to be, but these are the most common.

If you plan on using children, defined as anyone younger than 18, in your study, then you are legally required to obtain consent from their parent or guardian of the child. Obviously the consent form will need to be modified to indicate that you will be working with the children, but all of the same ideas still apply. This is the basic legal requirement. Most researchers will then go out and obtain assent, or the juvenile's consent to be part of the study. This makes things easier because the child's thoughts and feelings are considered and valued.

Deception means intentionally misleading, providing incorrect information or omitting relevant information. Informed consent is tricky without this and must follow rigorous guidelines when a researcher is seeking approval by the Institutional Review Board. A researcher who uses deception must still ensure that no harm comes to the subject and the act of misleading or omitting must not cause undue suffering. An example of misleading is placing experimenters among the subjects and not informing the subjects that there are confederates among them.

Incorrect information typically deals with what the focus of the study is actually about. For example, having subjects perform tasks, but really recording how they react emotionally. Omitting information is when details like those discussed before are left out. What exactly is acceptable deception is left up to Institutional Review Boards, since there is never a 'this is always ok.' Furthermore, following the experiment, the researcher must fully inform the participant of what occurred, known as a debriefing.

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