So you want to assess ethical considerations?

Travis DixonResearch Methodology, Teaching Ideas

Students love to make judgements about "unethical" studies, but in this post I'll explain why this could be a bad idea.

One way of evaluating studies in psychology is to consider whether or not the study might have ethical issues. When evaluating ethics, many students want to jump straight to condemning studies by saying something like, “This study was unethical because…” 

I would refrain from making such condemnations and using this definitive language because it’s often very hard to completely write-off a study as being “unethical.” A more accurate and appropriate way to say it, is that the study might have “ethical concerns,” “ethical issues” or “ethical considerations.”

Avoid making judgements about a study based on its ethics, because ethics are rarely black and white. For example, we can’t just say that because a study caused or could have caused psychological or physical harm, that it is unethical. What if that harm could reduce suffering and improve the lives of others?

Let’s look at the following questions and see when you start saying “No.”

  • Is it OK to kill an ant if that will help find a cure for cancer?
  • What about a rabbit?
  • What about 1,000 rabbits?
  • What about a chimpanzee?
  • What about 1,000 chimpanzees?
  • What about making 1 chimp suffer for years to find the cure?
  • Would you kill a human to cure cancer?
  • What about just running a 50% risk of killing them?
  • A 1% risk?
  • A 0.000001% risk?
close up of a monkeys hand holding on to cage wire

Studies on animals often make for good discussions about ethical considerations, which is why they’re now a requirement for the HL extensions.

You see, the “rules” surrounding what is ethical and unethical are not black and white. Moreover, not everyone will agree on what is ethical and what is unethical. We have to appreciate that there are grey areas and this is why we use phrases like issues, concerns or considerations.

You can also see that sometimes a level of harm or suffering can be justified, if it has the potential to benefit others. This is one of the key “issues” that researchers, review boards and psychologists have to consider.

How to explain an ethical concern/issue

If you’re explaining that one limitation of a study is that it has ethical issues, what you’re probably saying is that there is the study caused harm or suffering for others, whether it’s human or non-human animals (e.g. laboratory rats). Or, that there is (or was) the potential for harm or suffering. so in your explanation you need to make it clear how the study caused harm and/or has the potential to cause harm.

Many students make the mistake of being too vague and brief when they explain the ethical issue. For example, here’s a common type of evaluation of Bandura’s Bobo Doll studies:

  • One limitation of Bandura’s Bobo Doll experiment is that it’s unethical because it used very young children as subjects.

So what? Lots of studies use young children. The Marshmallow test is a famous experimental paradigm that uses kids. Using kids is not inherently unethical, so this point needs explaining – what’s the reason why in this study it’s an ethical issue to use young kids? And that requires explaining the harm or potential for harm. So here’s what a better explanation would look like:

  • One limitation of Bandura’s Bobo Doll experiment is that it’s unethical it has ethical issues because it used very young children as subjects. Bandura hypothesized that learning could happen through observation, and the results supported this. But who’s to say that the learned aggressive behaviour did not continue after the study? The experiment might have caused lasting beliefs in the children about aggression, which raises some concerns about ethics. It would be interesting to know if the parents signed informed consent forms, or if this study happened before this was a requirement. 

In the explanation above, the potential for harm is explained – the lasting impact of the research on the kids. It also doesn’t overstate the possible effects (e.g. maybe the kids could grow up to hate clowns and try to beat them up whenever they saw them).

The Belmont Report

The Bandura experiments also raise an interesting point about studies conducted before the Belmont Report (1978), which outlines three core components of ethical research:

  • Respect for persons
  • Beneficence
  • Justice

Studies before this report, such as Bandura’s experiments, Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment or Milgram’s experiments on compliance with authority, could be judged to be unethical by today’s standards, based on the ethical guidelines set forth by psychological institutions (e.g. APA, BPS,  etc.). Even with these famously unethical studies, the phrase “by today’s standards” is still an important qualifier.

But it’s quite unlikely you’ll be using these old studies in your responses. It’s far more probable that you’ll be using more modern studies. These studies would have been approved by an ethics review committee before being conducted, so it’s unlikely that there will be the same obvious ethical issues as there are in the old studies. This is why I encourage you to get the judgement mentality out of your head and refer to ethical issues rather than declaring if a study was unethical or not.

You can actually lose marks by evaluating ethics

The problem with many students’ evaluations of ethical issues in studies is that they are irrelevant to the question being asked. Let’s look at this with a few example essay questions in IB Psychology:

  1. Evaluate social identity theory.
  2. Discuss the effect of one hormone on human behaviour.
  3. Discuss the use of one research method used to study cultural origins of behaviour.
  4. Discuss one bias in thinking and decision making.

Evaluating ethics in studies is not something I actively encourage my students to do for essays, because it’s often not relevant.

Evaluating the ethical issues raised in a particular study is of little or no relevance to any of these questions. Why not? Well let’s take a look:

  1. This question wants you to evaluate the theory – evaluating the evidence is one way of evaluating the theory, but the ethics of the evidence (i.e. study) is of marginal relevance to its effect on the validity of the theory.
  2. You should be discussing the effect of the hormone, not the ethics of the supporting evidence – this would be of marginal relevance and there are much better points to make.
  3. For this question, you could explain common ethical issues with the method, but explaining issues in the supporting study would once again be of marginal relevance.
  4. Similar to the answers above – you are discussing the bias, not the supporting evidence.

If you start explaining ethical issues about the study when the study is not the focus of the question, something else is, you run the risk of losing marks for not being “focused on the question.” 

When is it a good idea to assess ethics?

The only time I would strongly encourage you to explain ethical issues relevant to a particular study is when you’re asked a “One study related to…” type question in an essay – not in a SAQ.

For example:

  • Discuss one study related to neuroplasticity.
  • Evaluate one study related to prosocial behaviour.
  • Evaluate research (theories or studies) related to genes and behaviour.

When you are explicitly asked to evaluate or discuss a study in relation to a particular topic, then it’s a good idea to explain ethical issues. But even then, you can still write excellent answers without worrying about ethics.

This video explains the five types of IB Psychology exam questions…


The last word…

Evaluating a study by explaining it has limitations because of its ethical issues requires you to carefully consider how the study caused harm or had (or has) the potential to cause harm. This is often very difficult, especially when discussing modern studies because they have to pass strict ethics review boards.

I don’t discourage my own students from assessing ethics in essays, but I also don’t actively encourage it either. Like anything, if it’s relevant to the question and you think you have a good point to make, then go for it. But also remember that you are showing your critical thinking – don’t just write the first thing that comes to mind or go to the easy default of saying a study was unethical. Think carefully and explain concisely.

Feel free to leave any questions in the comments.