Topic 3
Ethics in Psychology

Summary of Ethics In Psychology

Major Issues
Stress and Harm
Ewen Cameron

Milgram, Schacter, ...
Alternatives to Deception?

Informed Consent


Privacy and Confidentiality

Formulation of Ethical Principles & Guidelines
History From Animals to the Insane & "Moronic'
Animal Research
Red Deer Alberta

Development of Guidelines
CPA & Tri-council

Ethics Review Board / Committee
cost-benefit or compassion?

Major Issues

Stress and Harm have been identified as the most important issues when it comes to ethics in psychology.

Principally, this comes from the observation of stress and harm in previous research studies that has been deemed to be inexcusable in recent times.

Milgram's study on obedience is one of the first studies to raise the issue of stress and harm and the need for ethics in psychology.

His study made use of deception in having participants think that the study was about learning when in fact it was about obedience to authority. The argument stands that without deception the phenomena could not be completely understood, thus for the sake of science it is acceptable.

More importantly as seen from viewing the original movie, the participants underwent severe stress and strain in this study as they had thought they had seriously hurt and possibly even killed someone else by delivering high voltage shocks to a weak heart.


Ewen Cameron carried out studies funded by the American CIA at the Allan Memorial Institute in Montréal during the 1950s and 1960s. He used ECT and LSD to re-programme people, largely wiping out their previous memories and sense of self in the name of (American) national defense and scientific progress.  see video controlling the mind.


Deception has come to be an important part of psychological research. Initially single blind studies were done to eliminate the possibility of bias in the results. If the participants knew that they were or were not getting some kind of treatment (drug, social condition, ...) then they might act in accordance with expectations and thus not provide accurate data.

The double-blind study was later devised to remove experimenter bias where the experimenter may unknowingly affect the behaviour or the participants and thus the data. As a result deception of participants (and sometimes experimenters) has been deemed essential to the science.

Examples are given in the text where the true nature of the study is not known, where people are led to believe they will get shocked (Schacter's study on anxiety & affiliation), or the fake results that indicate some did much more poorly on a test (e.g., IQ) than actually had. Alternatives to Deception?

Is it possible to carryout studies without the use of deception?

Cozby suggests several possibilities: Role-playing to pretend one is in a challenging situation rather than actually in that situation.

Simulation studies where the acting gets a little more serious and real-life like. Here people may take their roles very seriously and cause psychological or physical harm to others in the simulation.

E.g., Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment that had to be stopped after six days due the stress and strain is caused. Honest Experiments can be done where complete disclosure of the purpose of the research is made prior to being carried out. Secondly one can develop educational programmes to change behaviour and investigate the effect of the programme vs. none.
Thirdly, can make use of 'quasi-experiments" where naturally occurring phenomena (disasters) can be observed as they unfold.

Informed Consent has come to be a standard in the practice of psychological research. Typically individuals must read and sign a release that they have been informed of the general nature of the study and that they may voluntarily withdraw from the study at any time. For people below age of consent, parents or guardians must sign the release. Example

Recently the consent of not only individuals who participate in studies is needed, but also the consent of the institution or NGO through which researchers might contact people is needed. E.g.

This is particularly true for dealing with special populations, such as school children, prisoners, mental health patients, etc. Coercion?

Debriefing is also seen as an essential part of the practice of psychology where the actual or more detailed information about the study and or the participant's contributions is revealed.

Sometimes if people have been through stressful experiences (or asked to relive or report them) counselling may be offered.

Follow-up information is also expected in many (or all) cases where information on how to find the results is included in the consent form or given during debriefing. Group meetings are sometimes made where the results are "given back" to the participants and their communities at a special forum.


Privacy and Confidentiality

As indicated on the consent form, complete anonymity is expected where the responses from any given participant will not be identified by name or any other way that will lead others to know their identity.

The use of participant code numbers serves this purpose (also to remove experimenter bias) where only the participant knows both the name and the code number. They are asked to retain the code number for later identification, should the participant be interested in knowing their responses.

Formulation of
Ethical Principles & Guidelines

History From Animals to the Insane & "Moronic'

Animal Research in the post war era had been influenced by the 1947 Nuremberg code to avoid atrocities carried out by the Nazis in the name of science.

Red Deer Alberta Canadian Psychologist John MacEacheran was instrumental in the "rubber stamping" of sterilization orders for "mental defectives" and "morons" in the name of human betterment.

Development of Guidelines APA (See Cozby) built from the Nuremberg guidelines, Americans developed a code of ethics for psychologists.

Planning Research
Compliance with Law and Standards
Institutional Approval
Informed Consent
Deception in Research
Sharing and Utilizing Data
Minimizing Invasiveness
Providing information
Honoring Commitments


CPA & Tri Council

Dunbar (1998) - Post WWII tried to develop 'professional ethics,' did not really work, . . . later in 1969 established a Joint Committee (of scientific and professional Affairs)

1975 Adopted the APA "Ten Principles" for the conduct of research with human subject with no revisions. Canadians soon realised that the social and cultural context of Canada was different, requiring different guidelines.

1987 - Canadian Code of Ethics for Psychologists was developed with a movement towards a "peaceful approach to the resolution of differences between psychologists and other groups concerning definitions of quality care and appropriate scientific conduct" (p. 183)

The CPA Code: Four Principles

Principle I: Respect for the Dignity of Persons. This principle, with its emphasis on moral rights, generally should be given the highest weight, except in circumstances in which there is a clear and imminent danger to the physical safety of any person.

Principle II: Responsible Caring. This principle generally should be given the second highest weight. Responsible caring requires competence and should be carried out only in ways that respect the dignity of persons.

Principle III: Integrity in Relationships. This principle generally should be given the third highest weight. Psychologists are expected to demonstrate the highest integrity in all of their relationships. However, in rare circumstances, values such as openness and straightforwardness might need to be subordinated to the values contained in the Principles of Respect for the Dignity of Persons and Responsible Caring.

Principle IV: Responsibility to Society. This principle generally should be given the lowest weight of the four principles when it conflicts with one or more of them. Although it is necessary and important to consider responsibility to society in every ethical decision, adherence to this principle must be subject to and guided by Respect for the Dignity of Persons, Responsible Caring, and Integrity in Relationships.

When a personís welfare appears to conflict with benefits to society, it is often possible to find ways of working for the benefit of society that do not violate respect and responsible caring for the person. However, if this is not possible, the dignity and well-being of a person should not be sacrificed to a vision of the greater good of society, and greater weight must be given to respect and responsible caring for the person.

Even with the above ordering of the principles, psychologists will be faced with ethical dilemmas that are difficult to resolve. In these circumstances, psychologists are expected to engage in an ethical decision-making process that is explicit enough to bear public scrutiny.

In some cases, resolution might be a matter of personal conscience. However, decisions of personal conscience are also expected to be the result of a decision-making process that is based on a reasonably coherent set of ethical principles and that can bear public scrutiny.

If the psychologist can demonstrate that every reasonable effort was made to apply the ethical principles of this Code and resolution of the conflict has had to depend on the personal conscience of the psychologist, such a psychologist would be deemed to have followed this Code.

Critique & Commentary on CPA Code

Sinclair (1998) identifies nine unique features to the code:

1) setting objectives based upon a critical analysis of the international and interdisciplinary literature on codes of ethics.

2) inclusion of an overriding ethic of a contract with society

3) use of an empirical methodology in developing the code

4) organisation of the code around ethical principles

5) differential weighting of the four ethical principles

6) inclusion of a model for ethical decisions making

7) inclusion of the role of personal conscience

8) inclusion of both minimal and idealised standards

9) presentation of the code as an umbrella document

O'Neil (1998) suggests that the code leads to better teaching of ethics due to the fact that it is an "overriding principle" approach that applies universal (Kantian) rules with a sensitivity to context. In contrast, the "moral Dilemmas" approach leads to situations of compromise between competing 'legitimate' rules.

Stark (1998) identifies it as a "best practice" model that focuses on principles, values & standards not a "worst practice" model that focuses on rules, regulations & proscriptions / prescriptions.

Thus we can extend it to other areas / disciplines and bring about change through external standards and references.

However, the interpretation and application is unclear ... what does dignity, integrity & quality of research mean?

Stark recognises various views, including 'feminist' ones that: -encourage consultation & collaboration with stakeholders
-respect for cultural & institutional value differences
-responsibility for social and individual needs
-recognition of connotative meanings (i.e., gender language)

She also recognises that right to withdraw appears to end when the data has been collected (i.e., Nuchanalth blood)

Peer review is it ethical? what about "network nepotism", "gate keeping" and possible theft of ideas?

Ethics Review Board / Committee (ERB) Considers risk to participants and usually makes a cost-benefit or compassion. Is this ethical? What about compassion? or other forms of ethics that are non-utilitarian?
(Pettifor, 1996)


Dunbar, J. (1998). A critical history of CPA's various codes of ethics for psychologists (1939-1986). Canadian psychology, 39, 177-186.

O'Neil, P. (1998). Teaching ethics: The utility of the CPA code. Canadian psychology, 39, 177-186.

Pettifor, J. (1996). Ethics: Virtue and politics in the science and practice of psychology. Canadian psychology, 37, 1-12.

Sinclair, C. (1998). Nine unique features of the Canadian Code of Ethics for psychologists. Canadian psychology, 39, 167-176.

Stark, C. (1998). Ethics in research context: Misinterpretations and misplaced misgivings. Canadian psychology, 39, 202-211.