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Ethics, Psychology, and a little bit of Machiavelli – Kristina

Psychology is the study of human behaviour – why and how we do the things we do. And so, psychologists go about trying to figure out what makes us tick. They do this through surveys, observation, studying our brains, and of course, by doing experiments. It’s that last one that stirs up trouble in our minds, as we try to balance our thirst for answers and the side of us that asks if there is such thing as going too far in our quest for answers.

In the past, the curiosity won out, as there were experiments such as the Monkey Drug Trials conducted in 1969 or the Little Albert Study in 1920 that have since been deemed unethical by today’s standards. The Monkey Drug Trials were meant to test the addictive nature of various drugs on the mind and body, with the researchers trying to find out how much of a dependency will be created, and what lengths the subject will go to in order to maintain their addiction. The experimenter got the monkeys addicted to various drugs, and then taught them to inject themselves.  Then, the humans left the animals alone with a plentiful supply of the various drugs. The monkeys suffered from severe convulsions, with some tearing off their own fingers due to hallucinations caused by some of the drugs. Others tore the hair off their chests and arms, and some broke their arms trying to escape.

The Little Albert Study was not much better. John Watson set out to see if humans could be classically conditioned in the way Pavlov had proved using his famous dog. He wanted to show that emotions could be conditioned in humans, and so he employed a toddler boy known as “Little Albert” to prove this. He started by giving Little Albert a rat to play with. The next time he was given the rat, Watson banged on a metal pipe behind the child, and after repeatedly pairing the rat with the loud noise, the child became scared of the rat, even without the loud noise accompanying it. Little Albert soon generalized his fear to other white and/or furry objects. Little Albert and his mother moved away, leaving Watson before the child could be desensitized to his fear.

Today’s psychologists and researchers must completely inform their participants as to what they are going to be exposed to in the experiment, what the goals are in the experiment, and all the risks involved except when the research will not create discomfort/harm to the individuals, or involves surveys or a naturalistic observation (observing the individuals in their natural environment). They may not deceive the participants about the aims of the experiment unless the “use of deceptive techniques is justified” and the researchers explain the deception to the participants as soon as possible. Researchers can also subject animals to pain only if it is justified by its “prospective scientific, educational, or applied value”. So…researchers can lie to their human participants and cause harm to their non-human participants if the gains caused by the experiment outweigh the techniques used.

Somewhat Machiavellian, no? As long as the ends justify the means, go ahead and harm and deceive your participants. But some experiments do require some deception and/or harm. You can’t always tell your participants everything, after all, you want to try to find how someone would react to a situation, and having them expecting what is coming or knowing all the aspects in an experiment could mess up your data. In Milgram’s infamous obedience study, the participants were told they were participating in a study about learning and memory, and then led to believe that they were issuing fatal shocks to someone on the other side of a wall. In reality, no one was being shocked, and the study was looking at obedience and a humans tendency to obey authority figures. Had the participants known this, then the experiment wouldn’t have worked. Today Milgram’s Study is considered unethical, as he did deceive his participants, and he put them into a highly stressful situation that could cause psychological harm. But then, he did fully debrief the participants after, and according to today’s Code of Conduct, this makes it all right. Not to mention, his experiment did show the dark side of humans and gave insight into how far we will go to please and obey a authority figure (pretty darn far – 26 out of 40 participants issued ‘fatal’ shocks to the other person when ordered to). So it could be argued that the ends justified the means…after all, no one was really harmed in the experiment.

Harm to animals is also considered okay…again, as long as this harm is justifiable. According to PETA, over 100 million rats and mice are killed in labs every year. [It seems quite sad when you read the PETA website, after all, mice socialize, fall in love (“Male mice woo mates with high-pitched love songs”, say PETA), exhibit altruism, and infants even giggle when tickled. Jeez guys, they are altruistic! I think that puts them one step above humans, if you ask me.] There’s a study by Carney Landis called the Facial Expressions Experiment. He meant to find out if humans have a common expression when faced with joy, surprise, disgust, etc. He had all these ethical stimuli, and his experiment would have been ethical by today’s standards, if not for the final part of the study. Participants were given a live rat and told to behead it. One-third of them did it, and when the other two-thirds refused, Landis did it for them. As no one involved knew how to behead a rat ‘humanly’, the poor rats suffered terribly. Landis did not find out if humans have common facial expressions. The ends did not justify the means, in my opinion, although we did find out humans will do almost anything when told to by an authority figure, way before Milgram.

Nowadays, horrible experiments like the ones I named are nearly nonexistent. But the ethics of experiments are still an issue, as researchers struggle to find out the secrets to human traits without getting on the wrong side of the code of conduct. I think that with this code, there’s a lot more guess work, and a lot more theorizing about human behaviour. Researchers are forced to generalize from monkeys to humans, as it’s not acceptable to experiment on humans. This can prove disastrous, as monkeys and humans are not the same in all aspects, and will not react the same to all stimuli. So a question that concerns all scientific researchers: if the ends justify the means, then shouldn’t we be able to experiment on humans? Ah….no. It’s a very clear, unshakeable, no. It’s lab rats or nothing. Scientific research might always tread this line between the ethical and the answer to humans and life – and ethics usually wins out. So maybe we won’t find out everything we need to about how humans will react in certain situations, but do we really need to? It’s the mysteries of life, we don’t need all the answers. And if we can’t find out everything we need to without being unethical, then let’s stick with accepting our existence and our behaviour with wonderment. It’s easier that way.



2 thoughts on “Ethics, Psychology, and a little bit of Machiavelli – Kristina

  1. Thanks for this thorough and interesting summary of research ethics, Kristina. It’s cool to see our course’s tie to psychology come up again, and for the familiar touchstone of Mr. Milgram’s study to again serve as an example for our understanding.

    The note about whether “the benefits of the experiment outweigh the harm” of lying to, or harming the study’s participants (even if they are animals) strikes me as particularly subjective. How do scientists go about quantifying this cost/benefit analysis? What sorts of scientific benefit allow researchers to push the boundaries (in either direction, lying or harm)?

    Are there any safeguards to ensure this clause of ethical research isn’t breached?

    Thought provoking stuff – great work!

    Posted by Mr. J | December 12, 2012, 10:29 pm
    • There’s not really anyways to define how ground-breaking a scientific break-through must be to push the boundaries of ethics…everyone will have their own opinion on that. As for safeguards to ensure that scientific research doesn’t push those boundaries, there is are codes that outline what is considered ethical in research, and what a researcher must do in order to keep their research ethical. For psychology, the APA has a Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct that all psychologists must follow.

      Posted by kapitza17 | December 17, 2012, 6:09 am

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