Ethical Issues in Research
John B. Watson, one of the pioneers of behaviorism, earned a place in history and in every introduction to psychology textbook for his “Little Albert” experiment. Watson and his associate conditioned a fear of white objects in 9-month old “Albert.” Despite the fame and success of his experiment, Watson and his associated violated most ethical standards associated with ethical research today. No approval was sought, no guarantee of the subject’s safety was offered, and no legitimate rationale was offered for the experiment.
The “Little Albert” experiment would be unethical and would not pass the review of any research committee today. Why? What standards govern research? Five important criteria for ethical research include:
2. Informed Consent
3. Provision for Access
Confidentiality includes the steps taken by researchers to protect the identity of subjects. Confidentiality is important because the fear of identification in the findings could skew the information provided by subjects or motivate some subjects to not participate in order to lower the risks of embarrassment or reprisals. is the commitment to protect the identity of study participants (Werner & DeSimone, 2009).
Informed consent details the design of the study. Subjects are informed about information gathering and management. The procedures for protecting confidentiality are detailed for the subjects. Informed consent should be in written form and signed by the subjects. Colantuono (2009) highlights three necessary criteria found in the American Psychological Association’s Code of Ethics:
Deception is not allowed Subjects may not be harmed All procedures employed in the study must be approved by the applicable research review boards
Provision for Access
Some studies involve treatments for diseases or disorders that prove effective. Since many studies of new treatment use placebos with control groups for comparisons, ethical questions arise about those receiving placebos rather than the effective treatment. Ethical standards require that subjects in the control group be given access to the treatment.
Research credibility depends upon the validity and reliability of the research study and findings. Studies that employ dishonest tactics such as deviating from the approved procedures or mismanaging the data erodes confidence in the findings. Dishonest reporting of the findings is another potential problem. Researchers can feel pressure to produce findings to conform to predictions. Dishonest reporting may slip past the research community until attempts to replicate the study expose the weaknesses.
Watson’s experiment serves as a great example of how research can prove “successful” though it violates ethical guidelines. Does it matter? Watson was never able to undo his conditioning “success” because “Albert” and his mother moved. They lost track of the mother and only recently “Albert’s” identity and fate were discovered and revealed. Young “Albert” apparently died as a child, not from his fear of white objects like rabbits, but from hydrocephalus in 1925. He was six years old.
Colantuono, F. (2009). Informed consent policy. Retrieved March 23, 2010 from http://www.experiment-resources.com/informed-consent-policy.html
Werner, J.M., & DeSimone, R.L. (2009). Human resource development (5th ed.). Mason, OH: South-Western Cengage.