A look at psychology’s fundamental ethics and guideline

From the end of World War II to the early 1990s, there was distress about worthy standards of human participants in psychological experiments. Scientists were using humans as subjects for gruesome experiments. The Nuremberg War Crimes Trail indicates that German scientists were using captive humans as subjects for gruesome experiments. The Asian Holocaust indicates that the Japanese was also using humans as subjects for horrifying experiments. These and other events had brought attention to ethical committees to re-examine the moral standards of human rights.

Volunteer to participate

William M.K. Trochim’s website mentions that psychologists cannot force applicants to participate in studies. Participants have the right to choose to either participate in the study or not. Researchers also have the right to select applicants who are willing to participate in the studies like the Stanford prison experiment. Philip Zimbardo, a social psychologist and an author, ran an ad for a prison life experiment. In the ad he mentioned he would pay volunteers $15 per day for two weeks. Seventy-five people volunteered for the experiment. Nevertheless, he selected only twenty-four applicants to participate in the study.

Informed consent

Trochim’s website also includes that psychologists must fully inform participants about the procedures, purpose, risks, rights and benefits of experiments. When participants inform and review all the information, they must sign the consent. If children participate in the studies, parents must sign the consent form for them.


America Psychological Association and Hong Kong Psychological Society inform that psychologists must keep all participants’ information confidential. They cannot repeat or share any participants’ information to others unless participants request or permit it. The Stanford prison experiment is an example that psychologists kept participants’ records confidential. Philip Zimbardo and other observers did not release any participants’ information to the public.

Protect and withdraw from studies

Psychologists must always protect participants from psychological or physical harm. They must also withdraw or stop the experiments immediately if participants experience any harm as Ronald J.Comer also emphasize in his textbook Abnormal Psychology. After six days, Zimbardo terminated the Stanford prison experiment. Some college students who played a role as prisoners developed psychological problems. Such psychological problems that college students developed were uncontrollable crying, rage, psychosomatic rash and disorganized thinking.


The article “Reading the Ethic Code more deeply” by Dr. Stephen Behnke, a director of ethics at the American Psychological Association, explained the ethical dilemma about the use of deception in research and the core values. Both are not in agreement with each other. Under the standard 8.07 (a,b,c) in the American Psychological Association’s ethical guidelines, psychologists can use deception in the studies to advance psychology, but they cannot use it if it causes participants distress and pain. Also, they have to explain to participants about any deception that is included in the studies “before the conclusion of the data collection,” but what about afterward?

“The endpoint-the conclusion of the data collection-is that point in time when deception no longer serves the purpose of advancing science and so loses its ethical justification,” said Dr. Stephen Behnke.

Although there are ethical rules to resolve some ethical issues, more ethical rules might be added or changed in the future. Psychologists are still dealing whether deceptive techniques are appropriate to use in the studies or whether participants in the control group and in the experimental group should have rights to equal access to services. Those in the control group do not receive treatments or programs that may have beneficial effects. On the contrary, those who are in the experimental group receive treatments or programs that may have beneficial effects.