The Troubling Ethics of Human Psychological Experimentation

Thanks to the popularity of Malcolm Gladwell’s airport book store best-sellers and many of those who cashed in on his formula, like behavioral economist Dan Ariely (Predictably Irrational), psychological experiments are increasingly referenced in the media and the blogosphere, not to mention at the dinner table, more than ever before. Call me an alarmist if you like, but this makes me worry about the reckless, harmful and even diabolical experiments being dreamed up by the next wave of aspiring authors and the researchers who give them their best material.

The ethical dilemma with many human psychological experiments is that, by definition, the researchers tamper with people’s minds with the legitimate objective of acquiring knowledge about how the human mind works, but may not have sufficient knowledge to repair the harm they do in the process. Then there is the problem of deception, which many psychological experiments require. Deception is inherently unethical, and its presence as a crucial element of a human experiment may make genuine informed consent, supposedly an ethical requirement of psychological research on humans, impossible.

There are ethical guidelines for researchers in this field, but they raise as many issues as they resolve. Psychological experiments on humans…

  1. Must be fully voluntary, with the right to withdraw at any time.
  2. The subject must give informed consent.
  3. The results must be confidential regarding the identity of the subjects.
  4. If deception is involved, there must be a legitimate scientific basis for its use and the study must be observed by an independent monitor to ensure that the use of deception is not excessive or unnecessary.
  5. The subject must be debriefed by the researchers.

That’s it, and it isn’t much. It also is inherently vague. For example, what is voluntary participation? If there is payment involved, participation may not be voluntary in the truest sense of the word. Will researchers reject desperate people, for example? Shouldn’t they? There is also potential for manipulation of the concept of “voluntary.” On the Research Ethics Blog, for example, Chris McDonald asks if it would be ethical to study the trapped Chilean miners. They may “volunteer” to be studied now; that is the least of their problems. But involuntarily “trapped” subjects cannot fairly be said to have volunteered for a study of their response to being trapped. In my view, it is too late to meet that requirement: a trapped miner is not a genuine volunteer.

The requirement of legitimate scientific reasons for deception is practically useless. At best, it says that the subjects shouldn’t be deceived to amuse the researchers or create a funny video. Even “let’s see what happens” could be considered a valid basis for research. There is very little so trivial or small that it would not be considered worth researching by a panel of scientists.

As I already noted, deception also makes the requirement of informed consent difficult, if not impossible. One can not be fully informed about an experiment in which the subject’s lack of information regarding a crucial element is the basis for the experiment. Someone who is deceived can not be fully informed.

The requirement of debriefing is a double-edged sword. True, a subject who has been deceived has a right to the truth, but there are experiments in which a subject’s a full realization of how they behaved will cause guilt and psychic trauma.

There are no clear answers, but one thing is certain: psychological experiments are invitations to unethical conduct by researchers. Here is one list of the ten most unethical psychological experiments of all time. We will be adding to it shortly. Count on it.

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Filed under Bioethics, Health and Medicine, History, Professions, Research and Scholarship, Science & Technology

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