Ethical Considerations in Psychological Research

When conducting research in psychology, adherence to ethical codes of practice is essential, particularly when dealing with human participants and sometimes animals. Ethics, in this context, refers to "rules of behavior based on ideas about what is morally good and bad." The primary purpose of ethical considerations is to safeguard participants from harm in any research endeavor. These ethical principles encompass obtaining informed consent, ensuring confidentiality, addressing deception, and safeguarding participants from mental and physical stress. Psychological research employs various methods, including experiments and observations, to explore different theories within the field.

Ethical guidelines are crucial in psychology, as they enable researchers to conduct morally sound studies that yield better and more accurate results. This essay will provide an overview and examination of ethical considerations—specifically, deception, consent, and the protection of participants—in the context of research studies at the Social-Cognitive Level of Analysis (SCLOA).

Deception in Psychological Research

Deception is one of the most commonly used ethical considerations in psychological experiments.

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It involves misleading participants about the true aims of a study or not fully disclosing the events that will transpire during the research. When a participant provides consent based on deception, they agree to participate in an experiment without full awareness of its nature. However, researchers are obligated to inform participants about the actual purpose of the study as soon as possible, often during the debriefing process. Deceptive methods are deemed necessary in some studies to gather information about specific psychological phenomena.

An infamous example of a study that employed deception is Stanley Milgram's obedience experiment conducted in 1963.

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Milgram aimed to investigate people's willingness to obey authority figures to an extreme degree. The study involved 40 male participants aged between 20 and 50, who were compensated for their participation. Two confederates of Milgram were involved—one playing the role of a biology teacher and the other a learner. The teacher, the chosen participant, was instructed to administer (simulated) electric shocks to the learner, with the voltage ranging from 15 volts to potentially fatal shocks of 450 volts. Importantly, the participants were not made fully aware of their right to withdraw from the experiment, as the experimenter would insist they continue with phrases like "please continue" and "the experiment requires that you continue." Milgram's findings revealed that 65% of participants went all the way to 450 volts, subjecting themselves to significant stress and anxiety. This study, however, was widely criticized for its ethical shortcomings, including the use of deception and other ethical concerns.

Despite these ethical concerns, Milgram's use of deception was deemed necessary to prevent demand characteristics from affecting the participants' behavior. Without deception, the experiment's findings might have been compromised or rendered ineffective. The distress and harm observed in some participants during the study also raise another ethical consideration: the protection of participants from harm.

Protection from Harm in Psychological Research

Protection from harm is a fundamental ethical consideration in psychological research, emphasizing the need to ensure that participants are not subjected to physical or mental harm. One study that failed to meet this ethical standard was Philip Zimbardo's Stanford prison experiment conducted in 1973. Zimbardo aimed to investigate the effects of assigning roles as prisoners and guards to individuals within a simulated prison environment. The study involved 24 mentally and physically stable male participants who were divided into prisoners and guards.

Zimbardo conducted a field experiment in which participants were observed through video, audiotape, and direct observation. The guards were provided with whistles, wooden bats, sunglasses, and uniforms, while the prisoners had no personal belongings, wore prison uniforms, ankle chains, and rubber sandals. The results of the study revealed that the guards exhibited hostility and cruelty, while the prisoners experienced negative emotions, extreme depression, and anxiety. Some participants even had outbursts and severe emotional distress, leading one participant to withdraw from the experiment within 36 hours.

Zimbardo's study did not adequately protect participants from physical or mental harm. While Zimbardo had instructed the guards not to physically abuse the prisoners, the participants were subjected to various forms of psychological and emotional harm, including humiliation and degradation. The study's realism, attributed to the freedom given to the guards, allowed for valid observations, but it came at the cost of ethical considerations. Participants were not adequately protected from harm, and some may have suffered long-term psychological consequences as a result.

Another ethical consideration in psychological research is informed consent. Researchers are required to inform participants about the nature of the study and seek their permission to participate. Participants must receive and sign a form detailing potential risks and a description of the study, providing them with an understanding of the study's benefits and potential drawbacks. Informed consent is essential as it ensures that participants are fully aware of the implications of their participation.

One of the most renowned overt observations conducted without informed consent was Leon Festinger's study in 1956. Festinger aimed to investigate his theory of cognitive dissonance, which explored how individuals react when their beliefs clash with observed reality. Festinger joined a religious cult that predicted the world would end on December 21st. The cult members were isolated from non-believers, necessitating Festinger's covert participation in their activities. When the predicted disaster did not occur, the cult members interpreted it as a sign that their prayers had saved the world, providing empirical support for Festinger's theory.

Festinger's study lacked informed consent, as the cult members were unaware of being observed. However, his covert approach allowed for a naturalistic observation of the cult's behavior without the influence of demand characteristics. Nevertheless, this approach raised ethical concerns, including the potential betrayal felt by the cult members upon discovering they were being observed.

Ethical Considerations and the Sociocultural Level of Analysis

In the context of the Sociocultural Level of Analysis (SCLA), ethical considerations are crucial to ensure the safety and well-being of participants in research studies. These considerations protect individuals from deception, grant them the right to withdraw from experiments, and safeguard their physical and mental health. While it may be challenging to conduct research without some ethical compromises, researchers should strive to meet these considerations whenever possible to draw meaningful conclusions in the study of sociocultural aspects of human behavior.

For instance, Leon Festinger's overt observation required the absence of informed consent to observe the cult's natural behavior accurately. Without this approach, the observation's validity may have been compromised, and the results less reliable. However, the lack of informed consent raises ethical concerns, as the participants were unaware of being observed. The cult members may have felt betrayed if they discovered they were subjects of a study and could have refused to allow the publication of gathered information.

Ultimately, ethical considerations play a vital role in psychological research, particularly in studies focused on the sociocultural aspects of human behavior. While researchers must navigate these ethical dilemmas, their commitment to protecting participants' rights and well-being remains paramount.


Ethical considerations are integral to the conduct of psychological research, ensuring the safety, rights, and well-being of participants. Deception, informed consent, and protection from harm are among the key ethical principles that researchers must adhere to when conducting experiments and observations. These considerations are essential in maintaining the integrity and credibility of research findings, especially within the Sociocultural Level of Analysis (SCLA), where the study of human behavior in social and cultural contexts is paramount.

Updated: Nov 08, 2023
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Ethical Considerations in Psychological Research. (2016, May 15). Retrieved from

Ethical Considerations in Psychological Research essay
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