Chapter 11 Ethics

We know that the last week was quite intense in terms of the workload. You will be happy to read that this week will be more relaxed. Chapter 4 in Beth’s book lays out a number of ethical principles psychological research should adhere to. The overall principles are of course similar, but if you’re interested in the specific UK guidelines available from the British Psychological Society, you can access these on the BPS guidelines and policies page.

An example that is mentioned in Beth’s book chapter is Milgram’s research into obedience. While Beth does mention Perry’s (2013) book, please note that a recent publication by Turowetz & Hollander (2018) questioned some of Perry’s conclusions. If you’d like to read more about Milgram’s research, you might also be interested in a relatively recent meta-analysis by Haslam et al. (2014).

As discussed by Beth, with studies like Milgram’s (or Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment, for that matter), there is a goal conflict. On the one hand, these studies might lead to relevant insights, on the other hand, they violate ethical principles. While attempts have been made to make Milgram’s study less ethically questionable (Burger, 2009), Miller (2009) has argued that the stress and coercion were perhaps key ingredients to Milgram’s experiment.

A frequent issue with psychological research is deception. Often it is necessary to mislead participants to some degree as it would not be possible to study certain phenomena if participants were aware that these phenomena are being studied. So, when is deception appropriate and when is it inappropriate? For the BPS, the main factor is the reaction of the participant when being told of the deception. The BPS code of Human Research Ethics states:

Deception or covert collection of data should only take place where it is essential to achieve the research results required, where there are no alternatives, where the research objective has strong scientific merit and where there is an appropriate risk management and harm alleviation strategy.

The experience of deception in psychological research may have the potential to cause distress and harm and can make the recipients cynical about the activities and attitudes of psychologists. However, since there are very many psychological processes that are modifiable by individuals if they are aware that they are being studied, stating the research focus to a participant in advance of the collection of data would make some psychological research impossible. There is a difference between withholding some of the details of the hypothesis under test and deliberately falsely informing the participants of the purpose of the research, especially if the information given implies a more benign topic of study than is in fact the case. This Code of Human Research Ethics expects all psychologists to seek to supply as full information as possible to those taking part in their research, recognising that providing all of that information at the start of a person’s participation may not be possible for methodological reasons. If the reaction of participants when deception is revealed later in their participation is likely to lead to discomfort, anger or objections from the participants then the deception is inappropriate. If a proposed research study involves deception, it should be designed in such a way that it protects the dignity and autonomy of the participants.

BPS Code of Human Research Ethics (p. 23)

In the lab class, we will ask you to work on an ethics activity in small groups. You can download the ethics activity document here. You do not need to read this document before your lab class.


Burger, J. M. (2009). Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey today? The American Psychologist, 64(1), 1–11.
Haslam, N., Loughnan, S., & Perry, G. (2014). Meta-Milgram: An empirical synthesis of the obedience experiments. PloS One, 9(4), e93927.
Miller, A. G. (2009). Reflections on "Replicating Milgram" (Burger, 2009). The American Psychologist, 64(1), 20–27.
Turowetz, J., & Hollander, M. M. (2018). From Ridiculous to Glad to Have Helped: Debriefing News Delivery and Improved Reactions to Science in Milgram’s Obedience Experiments. Social Psychology Quarterly, 81(1), 71–93.