Ethics in psychology is a topic for both concern and regular reflection. When conducting research, it is important that the participants or subjects in studies are not taken advantage of or subjected to undue harm. While individual researchers often believe their work meets such standards for ethics, personal involvement in the project may lead to inadvertent ethical oversights. As such, external review is necessary for all psychological research on human beings and animals in Canada. The basic parameters for ethical practice consist of legal statutes, specific regulations stemming directly from these statutes, general standards for ethical practice, and ethical codes that reflect the aspirations for safe, responsible psychological practice. Based on these parameters, specific, guidelines serve to reflect these goals in a given context (e.g., institution, field of study).
In addition, psychologists in Canada have three specific sources of guidance with regard to ethical practice. The first of these is the Canadian Code of Ethics for Psychologists, a product of the Canadian Psychological Association that deals with psychological practice broadly. Alternatively, the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS) is a federal document that articulates national standards for ethical practice in research. Finally, the American Psychological Association sets forth guidelines for ethical practice in a number of domains, including research, therapy, education, and more.
Research with human participants can involve a number of unique concerns. One of these is the issue of deception. Oftentimes, knowledge of the purpose of a study can change the way that participants respond. To avoid this, researchers will sometimes engage in deception by providing false information about the aims and intentions of a project. The strength of deception can range widely, and while the practice of deception does not automatically signal a lack of ethical soundness, it is important that participants are sufficiently debriefed at the end of the study. Informing participants of the true purpose of the study after the fact, as well as explaining why deception was necessary, serves to protect participants’ rights.
Additional factors that play a role in research with humans include stress and discomfort, which are allowed but only when sufficiently justified by the value of knowledge to be obtained from the research. Furthermore, participants must not be forced to participate in research, and must be free to withdraw from a study at any time without penalty. These issues become particularly important when there is a clear power differential between the researcher and the participant, such as in research on prison inmates or even undergraduate students. Finally, the identity of participants should be protected via anonymity, confidentiality, and/or privacy, depending upon the features of the research project.
In addition to human research, psychologists also conduct research on animals. There are pros and cons for animal based research. These benefits include increased environmental control and better access to lifespan processes, among others. At the same time, the case against animal research is diverse, including limited generalizability of animal research to human populations. As relevance to human psychology is of primary import for psychologists, animal research may require additional justification.
Overall, the issue of ethical practice in psychology requires constant reflection from practitioners and researchers, and is constantly evolving to reflect contemporary realities.
Additional Online Resources
The Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans: http://www.pre.ethics.gc.ca/pdf/eng/tcps2/TCPS_2_FINAL_Web.pdf
Links to a variety of ethics-related resources compiled by the Canadian Psychological Association: http://www.cpa.ca/aboutcpa/committees/ethics/resources
“Approaching Ethical Dilemmas.” By Deborah Smith Bailey: http://www.apa.org/monitor/oct04/dilemmas.aspx
“Lying in the Laboratory: Deception in Human Research from Psychological, Philosophical, and Theological Perspectives.” By Rodney L. Bassett, David Basinger, and Paul Livermore: http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1982/JASA12-82Bassett.html
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Interactive Quiz for Chapter 3
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