Evaluating The Importance Of Ethical Issues In Research Psychology Essay

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This essay will explain two different types of methods used in psychological research, case studies and experiments, and give two examples of each, and one demonstrating ethical concerns. The evaluation of the importance of ethical issues raised within research will be a concluding consideration.

The case study is used by psychologists to gain an in depth understanding through descriptive research, of an individual, a small group, or of a rare event or situation such as a rare psychological condition. Case studies can be retrospective or concurrent; usually following behaviour of the individual or small group over a period of time. A case study is therefore mostly a single case design which uses mostly qualitative data. "Case studies were developed from the idea of single case studies being tried in a court of law, Sigmund Freud was the first in his field to use case studies to learn more about his patients;" Zach, Lisa www.google.com/hubpages.com/.../ Psychology-Research-Methods-Surveys-Case-Studies-Experiments-for-Research-in-Psychology. Although Freud's case studies focus on abnormal patients, there are also case studies on brain damaged patients.

An example of a single case design is Freud's (1909) study of the phobia of little Hans. The aim of this clinical case study was the assessment of a five year old boy's psychological development. This was an important case study as it was the first time a psychologist had used his study and treatment of an individual, as evidence in demonstrating his theories such as infantile sexuality. Through a combined approach of regular letters from the father and a limited number of direct meetings, Freud recorded his qualitative data in an ongoing journal of the boy's development and his assessment of the unconscious mind of little Hans. In this case study Freud explored classic characteristics of the Oedipus complex. Freud believed the unconscious mind to be inaccessible and so did not ask direct questions but devised techniques that would disclose unconscious thoughts. In the use of these techniques and case studies Freud often unlocked the unconscious, identified past trauma, and defined and demonstrated models of psychological theory.

Another example of a case study would be Thigpen and Cleckley's study of the multiple personalities of Eve White (1954). They used a case study method, " This consisted of interviews with the patient and her family, hypnosis, observation, EEG tests and a number of psychometric and projective tests including, memory tests, and intelligence tests" www.google.com, www.holah.karoo.net / thigpenstudy.htm - referencing the journals of Thigpen and Cleckley. The case study gave an account of her treatment over a period of time. The qualitative data collected was used to give Eve an understanding of her condition, and a better quality of life.

Laboratory experiments either take place in a controlled setting, unnatural to participants, or in a laboratory, another factor in a controlled experiment is that key variables are manipulated. A variable is a quality, event or object that changes or varies: time or aggression for example. There are different types of variables. A dependant variable (DV) is one which is measured, and the independent variable (IV) is one which is manipulated in differing conditions. In an experiment the (IV) is manipulated or altered in order to see the affects it has on the (DV). The other, extraneous variable refers to any other variable that could influence the dependant variable other than the independent, thus negatively affecting the experiment, invalidating the results and provoking criticism. The ideal Laboratory experiment would therefore be one in which everything except the (IV) remains the same. Experimental designs are another feature of laboratory experiments as they outline how one would use ones participants; repeated measures, independent samples or matched pairs are examples of different designs. Quantitative data will be collected and analysed by the researcher to give the results of the experiment.

At the turn of the 20th Century Ivan Pavlov conducted a series of laboratory experiments in which he demonstrated his theory of classical conditioning. He was studying dogs for pancreatic investigations when he noted the behaviour of the dogs in relation to food; he observed, "salivation was a learned response. The dogs were responding to the sight of the research assistants' white lab coats, which the animals had come to associate with the presentation of food." www.google.com/psychology.about.com/od/classicalconditioning/a/pavlovs-dogs.htm

Pavlov looked at a group of dogs, using non- participant observation, in a controlled environment, exploring how the expectation of food could be manipulated by external factors or stimuli (IV). He demonstrated that when the dogs expected food and associated it with staff, and later bells, that the natural unconditional process of hunger could be changed to a conditional and learned behaviour (DV). When the dogs were about to be fed they would salivate, he noted that this salivation was a spontaneous reaction and was not consciously controlled, however Pavlov introduced a bell to alert the dogs of the expectation of food. "Unlike the salivary response to the presentation of food, which is an unconditioned reflex, salivating to the expectation of food is a conditioned reflex." www.google.com/psychology.about.com/od/classicalconditioning/a/pavlovs-dogs.htm Pavlov demonstrated that environmental factors that had no relation to a reflex (salivation), like the sound of a bell, could be used to condition and trigger the reflex.

Another example of a laboratory experiment is Zimbardo's 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, although one could argue that it was a prison simulation study. It was conducted by the researcher using participant observation, in which he inserted two groups of participants into a controlled mock prison environment. The participants' behaviour being the (DV) and the controlled environment being the (IV). The participants were split into two groups and given the roles of prisoners or guards, with Zimbardo participating, as the prison governor. The experiment was set up to demonstrate the power of the institution in reinforcing patterns of behaviour. Quantities data collected during the experiment was used to give extra weight to Milgram's research on obedience to authority.

Like Zimbardo's experiment, Milgram's (1963-65) research is remembered for its controversial procedures concerning ethics. The participants were given the role of teacher and of learner, but unknown to them, the learner was a mole. The teachers were told a 375v electric shock was very dangerous, and then put in a room with one of Milgram's assistants acting as an authority figure, and with the mole in an opposite room. A question was asked, and with every wrong answer the mole gave, the teacher was encouraged to electrify the mole with increasing power. Unknown to the participants the mole was not actually receiving a shock at all, but audio sounds of screaming were played to make the situation seem real to the participants'. "authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation." Milgram 1974, The perils of obedience www.google.com en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram experiment. Over 65% of the participants finished the experiment delivering a 450v electric shock.

Milgram's study has been influential in the development of ethics, as in 1965 ethical guidelines proved inadequate, and it was a direct response to this test that an ethics committee was formed with strict guidelines put in place. Milgram was accused of deception, "not only did they believe they were shocking an innocent victim and that victim suffered terribly but the whole purpose of the research was completely distorted." Coolican, (2004) P.603. As well as deception, Milgram was accused of breaching issues of informed consent by the ethics committee, as the participants weren't informed as to the true nature of the experiment. These are grey areas within psychological research as it is argued that to inform participants of the true nature of an experiment, could change their behaviour, and distort the results. Milgram defended his experiment, asserting that these issues had been addressed in the debriefing of participants, in which the true nature of the research was explained. Milgram couldn't conduct the same experiment today, as it would not be consistent with ethical guidelines such as; right to withdraw, participants being told, "You have no other choice you must go on," as stated by Gross & Rolls, (2003) P.121, and the protection of participants from physical and mental harm.

"Ethics can be defined as a consideration for what is acceptable or right behaviour in the pursuit of a particular personal or scientific goal"; Cardwell, (1996) P.125l. A governing body is now in place to see ethical guidelines in research are adhered to. The British Psychology Society (1993) have done likewise and stated that psychological research must protect participants' rights and dignity. Strict ethical guidelines now force psychologists to take ethical implications into account when conducting research, ensuring participants are aware of their rights especially if experiencing stress or discomfort, ensuring participants leave in a similar state as they entered, and the provision of a safe environment must be assured. Due to the Data Protection Act (1984) there are confidentiality codes protecting identity and personal information. Intrinsic to ethical codes are the wellbeing and privacy of the participants'. Psychological research must commit to a moral code and demonstrate high ethical standards in their work.

This essay has explained two research methods within psychology, using examples for each, demonstrating key procedures in case studies, and laboratory experiments. This essay demonstrates grey ethical areas within psychological research, and the need for clear and cohesive ethical guidelines in place, to protect participants firstly and to ensure validity of findings are not compromised. Hugh Coolican, (2004) P.605 quotes Reason and Rowan as saying, "Good research means never having to say you are sorry."


Cardwell M. (1996) (Psychology for AS Level) The Complete A-Z of Pyschology Handbook. Hodder & Stoughton.

Coolican H. (2004) Research Methods and Statistics in Psychology Fourth Edition. Hodder Arnold.

Gross R, Rolls G. (2003) Essential AS Psychology. Hodder & Stoughton.

Reason P, Rowan J. (1981) Human Enquiry. Wiley.

www.google.com/hubpages.com/.../Psychology-Research-Methods-Surveys-Case-Studies-Experiments-for-Research-in-Psychology (accessed 10th November 2009)

www.google.com, www.holah.karoo.net /thigpenstudy.htm - referencing the journals of Thigpen and Cleckley (accessed 11th November 2009)

www.google.com /en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ (2009) Milgram experiment1974, the perils of obedience (accessed 12th November 2009)

www.google.com/psychology.about.com/od/classicalconditioning/a/pavlovs-dogs.htm (accessed 12th November 2009)