3.1 Moral Foundations of Ethical Research

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe a simple framework for thinking about ethical issues in psychological research.
  2. Give examples of several ethical issues that arise in psychological research—including ones that affect research participants, the scientific community, and society more generally.

Ethics is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with morality—what it means to behave morally and how people can achieve that goal. It can also refer to a set of principles and practices that provide moral guidance in a particular field. There is an ethics of business, medicine, teaching, and of course, scientific research. As the opening example illustrates, many kinds of ethical issues can arise in scientific research, especially when it involves human participants. For this reason, it is useful to begin with a general framework for thinking through these issues.

A Framework for Thinking About Research Ethics

Table 3.1 “A Framework for Thinking About Ethical Issues in Scientific Research” presents a framework for thinking through the ethical issues involved in psychological research. The rows of Table 3.1 “A Framework for Thinking About Ethical Issues in Scientific Research” represent four general moral principles that apply to scientific research: weighing risks against benefits, acting responsibly and with integrity, seeking justice, and respecting people’s rights and dignity. (These principles are adapted from those in the American Psychological Association [APA] Ethics Code.) The columns of Table 3.1 “A Framework for Thinking About Ethical Issues in Scientific Research” represent three groups of people that are affected by scientific research: the research participants, the scientific community, and society more generally. The idea is that a thorough consideration of the ethics of any research project must take into account how each of the four moral principles applies to each of the three groups of people.

Table 3.1 A Framework for Thinking About Ethical Issues in Scientific Research

Who is affected?
Moral principle Research participants Scientific community Society
Weighing risks against benefits
Acting responsibly and with integrity
Seeking justice
Respecting people’s rights and dignity

Moral Principles

Let us look more closely at each of the moral principles and how they can be applied to each of the three groups.

Weighing Risks Against Benefits

Scientific research in psychology can be ethical only if its risks are outweighed by its benefits. Among the risks to research participants are that a treatment might fail to help or even be harmful, a procedure might result in physical or psychological harm, and their right to privacy might be violated. Among the potential benefits are receiving a helpful treatment, learning about psychology, experiencing the satisfaction of contributing to scientific knowledge, and receiving money or course credit for participating. Scientific research can have risks and benefits to the scientific community and to society too (Rosenthal, 1994). A risk to science is that if a research question is uninteresting or a study is poorly designed, then the time, money, and effort spent on that research could have been spent on more productive research. A risk to society is that research results could be misunderstood or misapplied with harmful consequences. The research that mistakenly linked the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism resulted in both of these kinds of harm. Of course, the benefits of scientific research to science and society are that it advances scientific knowledge and can contribute to the welfare of society.

It is not necessarily easy to weigh the risks of research against its benefits because the risks and benefits may not be directly comparable. For example, it is common for the risks of a study to be primarily to the research participants but the benefits primarily for science or society. Consider, for example, Stanley Milgram’s original study on obedience to authority (Milgram, 1963). The participants were told that they were taking part in a study on the effects of punishment on learning and were instructed to give electric shocks to another participant each time that participant responded incorrectly on a learning task. With each incorrect response, the shock became stronger—eventually causing the other participant (who was in the next room) to protest, complain about his heart, scream in pain, and finally fall silent and stop responding. If the first participant hesitated or expressed concern, the researcher said that he must continue. In reality, the other participant was a confederate of the researcher—a helper who pretended to be a real participant—and the protests, complaints, and screams that the real participant heard were an audio recording that was activated when he flipped the switch to administer the “shocks.” The surprising result of this study was that most of the real participants continued to administer the shocks right through the confederate’s protests, complaints, and screams. Although this is considered one of the most important results in psychology—with implications for understanding events like the Holocaust or the mistreatment of prisoners by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib—it came at the cost of producing severe psychological stress in the research participants.

Was It Worth It?

Much of the debate over the ethics of Milgram’s obedience study concerns the question of whether the resulting scientific knowledge was worth the harm caused to the research participants. To get a better sense of the harm, consider Milgram’s (1963) own description of it.

In a large number of cases, the degree of tension reached extremes that are rarely seen in sociopsychological laboratory studies. Subjects were observed to sweat, tremble, stutter, bite their lips, groan, and dig their fingernails into their flesh.…Fourteen of the 40 subjects showed definite signs of nervous laughter and smiling. The laughter seemed entirely out of place, even bizarre. Full blown uncontrollable seizures [of laughter] were observed for three subjects. On one occasion we observed a seizure so violently convulsive that it was necessary to call a halt to the experiment (p. 375).

Milgram also noted that another observer reported that within 20 minutes one participant “was reduced to a twitching, stuttering wreck, who was rapidly approaching the point of nervous collapse” (p. 377)

To Milgram’s credit, he went to great lengths to debrief his participants—including returning their mental states to normal—and to show that most of them thought the research was valuable and were glad to have participated. Still, this research would be considered unethical by today’s standards.

Acting Responsibly and With Integrity

Researchers must act responsibly and with integrity. This means carrying out their research in a thorough and competent manner, meeting their professional obligations, and being truthful. Acting with integrity is important because it promotes trust, which is an essential element of all effective human relationships. Participants must be able to trust that researchers are being honest with them (e.g., about what the study involves), will keep their promises (e.g., to maintain confidentiality), and will carry out their research in ways that maximize benefits and minimize risk. An important issue here is the use of deception. Some research questions (such as Milgram’s) are difficult or impossible to answer without deceiving research participants. Thus acting with integrity can conflict with doing research that advances scientific knowledge and benefits society. We will consider how psychologists generally deal with this conflict shortly.

The scientific community and society must also be able to trust that researchers have conducted their research thoroughly and competently and that they have reported on it honestly. Again, the example at the beginning of the chapter illustrates what can happen when this trust is violated. In this case, other researchers wasted resources on unnecessary follow-up research and people avoided the MMR vaccine, putting their children at increased risk of measles, mumps, and rubella.

Seeking Justice

Researchers must conduct their research in a just manner. They should treat their participants fairly, for example, by giving them adequate compensation for their participation and making sure that benefits and risks are distributed across all participants. For example, in a study of a new and potentially beneficial psychotherapy, some participants might receive the psychotherapy while others serve as a control group that receives no treatment. If the psychotherapy turns out to be effective, it would be fair to offer it to participants in the control group when the study ends.

At a broader societal level, members of some groups have historically faced more than their fair share of the risks of scientific research, including people who are institutionalized, are disabled, or belong to racial or ethnic minorities. A particularly tragic example is the Tuskegee syphilis study conducted by the US Public Health Service from 1932 to 1972 (Reverby, 2009). The participants in this study were poor African American men in the vicinity of Tuskegee, Alabama, who were told that they were being treated for “bad blood.” Although they were given some free medical care, they were not treated for their syphilis. Instead, they were observed to see how the disease developed in untreated patients. Even after the use of penicillin became the standard treatment for syphilis in the 1940s, these men continued to be denied treatment without being given an opportunity to leave the study. The study was eventually discontinued only after details were made known to the general public by journalists and activists. It is now widely recognized that researchers need to consider issues of justice and fairness at the societal level.

“They Were Betrayed”

In 1997—65 years after the Tuskegee Syphilis Study began and 25 years after it ended—President Bill Clinton formally apologized on behalf of the US government to those who were affected. Here is an excerpt from the apology:

So today America does remember the hundreds of men used in research without their knowledge and consent. We remember them and their family members. Men who were poor and African American, without resources and with few alternatives, they believed they had found hope when they were offered free medical care by the United States Public Health Service. They were betrayed.

Read the full text of the apology at http://www.cdc.gov/tuskegee/clintonp.htm.

Respecting People’s Rights and Dignity

Researchers must respect people’s rights and dignity as human beings. One element of this is respecting their autonomy—their right to make their own choices and take their own actions free from coercion. Of fundamental importance here is the concept of informed consent. This means that researchers obtain and document people’s agreement to participate in a study after having informed them of everything that might reasonably be expected to affect their decision. Consider the participants in the Tuskegee study. Although they agreed to participate in the study, they were not told that they had syphilis but would be denied treatment for it. Had they been told this basic fact about the study, it seems likely that they would not have agreed to participate. Likewise, had participants in Milgram’s study been told that they might be “reduced to a twitching, stuttering wreck,” it seems likely that many of them would not have agreed to participate. In neither of these studies did participants give true informed consent.

Another element of respecting people’s rights and dignity is respecting their privacy—their right to decide what information about them is shared with others. This means that researchers must maintain confidentiality, which is essentially an agreement not to disclose participants’ personal information without their consent or some appropriate legal authorization.

Unavoidable Ethical Conflict

It may already be clear that ethical conflict in psychological research is unavoidable. Because there is little, if any, psychological research that is completely risk free, there will almost always be conflict between risks and benefits. Research that is beneficial to one group (e.g., the scientific community) can be harmful to another (e.g., the research participants), creating especially difficult tradeoffs. We have also seen that being completely truthful with research participants can make it difficult or impossible to conduct scientifically valid studies on important questions.

Of course, many ethical conflicts are fairly easy to resolve. Nearly everyone would agree that deceiving research participants and then subjecting them to physical harm would not be justified by filling a small gap in the research literature. But many ethical conflicts are not easy to resolve, and competent and well-meaning researchers can disagree about how to resolve them. Consider, for example, an actual study on “personal space” conducted in a public men’s room (Middlemist, Knowles, & Matter, 1976). The researchers secretly observed their participants to see whether it took them longer to begin urinating when there was another man (a confederate of the researchers) at a nearby urinal. While some critics found this to be an unjustified assault on human dignity (Koocher, 1977), the researchers had carefully considered the ethical conflicts, resolved them as best they could, and concluded that the benefits of the research outweighed the risks (Middlemist, Knowles, & Matter, 1977). For example, they had interviewed some preliminary participants and found that none of them was bothered by the fact that they had been observed.

The point here is that although it may not be possible to eliminate ethical conflict completely, it is possible to deal with it in responsible and constructive ways. In general, this means thoroughly and carefully thinking through the ethical issues that are raised, minimizing the risks, and weighing the risks against the benefits. It also means being able to explain one’s ethical decisions to others, seeking feedback on them, and ultimately taking responsibility for them.

Key Takeaways

  • A wide variety of ethical issues arise in psychological research. Thinking them through requires considering how each of four moral principles (weighing risks against benefits, acting responsibly and with integrity, seeking justice, and respecting people’s rights and dignity) applies to each of three groups of people (research participants, science, and society).
  • Ethical conflict in psychological research is unavoidable. Researchers must think through the ethical issues raised by their research, minimize the risks, weigh the risks against the benefits, be able to explain their ethical decisions, seek feedback about these decisions from others, and ultimately take responsibility for them.


  1. Practice: Imagine a study testing the effectiveness of a new drug for treating obsessive-compulsive disorder. Give a hypothetical example of an ethical issue from each cell of Table 3.1 “A Framework for Thinking About Ethical Issues in Scientific Research” that could arise in this research.
  2. Discussion: It has been argued that researchers are not ethically responsible for the misinterpretation or misuse of their research by others. Do you agree? Why or why not?


Koocher, G. P. (1977). Bathroom behavior and human dignity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 120–121.

Middlemist, R. D., Knowles, E. S., & Matter, C. F. (1976). Personal space invasions in the lavatory: Suggestive evidence for arousal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 33, 541–546.

Middlemist, R. D., Knowles, E. S., & Matter, C. F. (1977). What to do and what to report: A reply to Koocher. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 122–125.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371–378.

Reverby, S. M. (2009). Examining Tuskegee: The infamous syphilis study and its legacy. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Rosenthal, R. M. (1994). Science and ethics in conducting, analyzing, and reporting psychological research. Psychological Science, 5, 127–133.

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