Ethical Issues in Psychology

Ethical Issues in Psychology


In Psychology some of the most contested issues are ethical issues. Many of the greatest psychological studies have been hugely unethical. For example, Milgram (1963), Zimbardo (1973). One of the problems one encounters when conducting psychological research is considering the extent to which the research depends upon being unethical.  Milgram’s infamous study conducted to the highest ethical peaks would not have provided such an insight of human obedience because it would have become completely ecologically invalid — in real life we cannot simply withdraw from the research. Furthermore, demand characteristics would have undoubtably had a confounding effect upon the results.

The British Psychological Society (BPS) and the American Psychological Association (APA) have provided an ethical framework for psychologists to attempt to adhere to when conducting psychological research.

If you are taking an a-level psychology exam, or conducting psychological research, it is important to know these ethical principles.

Protection From Harm

Perhaps the most important ethical principle is that participants should be protected from harm, psychological or otherwise.

Psychological harm can be difficult to operationalise because it can depend upon the person and it can be difficult to detect, both the participants and the researchers may not know that participants have been harmed psychologically. However, that being said, researchers can do their upmost to prevent any undue stress for their participants.

Right to Withdraw

Giving participants the right to withdraw does not just informing them that they can leave the study at any time, but also informing them that they have the right to withdraw their results from the study at any time.

This is important because some participants may feel pressured into continuing with the study. It is also important because it prevents the participants from feeling embarrassed about their results. Take for example a study in which a person has to take an IQ test, that returns the result that they have below average intelligence. This could be embarrassing for the participants and may lead them to want to withdraw.


Following on from the previous point. Ensuring that your results are anonymous and also confidential follows the ethical code put forth by the British Psychological Society.

No one outside of the experiment—and ideally in the experiment too—should be able to identify the participants from the results.

Informed Consent

For any research to be ethical, the researcher must have gained informed consent from the participants. The ‘informed’ part of this ethical principle is the most important part. It is no use to gain consent from participants when they are not informed about the true nature of the study.

Take for example Milgram’s 1963 study. The participants were told that they would be participating in research on memory and learning, and they consented to take part based on that knowledge. Milgram therefore did not gain informed consent because the participants were not fully informed about the true nature of the study, that is, it was a study into obedience. However, arguably informed consent was gained after the participants were debriefed, which brings us on to the next point.


Debriefing is conducted with the participants after the study has taken place. It has a number of aims. Firstly, it aims to ensure that none of the participants have been harmed in any way by the study. Secondly, it aims to make sure that the researchers have informed consent. Thirdly, it allows the participants an opportunity to remove their results from the study. Finally, it allows the participants to ask any questions about the study to make sure they fully understand the content of it.

There are a number of times when debriefing the participants of a study is not possible. To give an example, Piliavin et al., which was a field experiment. The participants of that study could not be debriefed because they did not know that they were taking part and it would have been nearly impossible to complete.


Some studies require that the participants are deceived in some way. The majority of the time this is to prevent demand characteristics, which can confound upon the results and conclusions of the study.

Deception however, is against the ethical standards set by the British Psychological Association. Deception includes: misleading the participants in any way and the use of stooges or confederates.

Further Reading

OCR A2 Psychology Student Unit Guide: Unit G544 Approaches and Research Methods in Psychology: Guide to Approaches and Research Methods in Psychology (Student Unit Guides)

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Ethical Issues in Psychology
In Psychology some of the most contested issues are ethical issues. Many of the greatest psychological studies have been hugely unethical.

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