Psychology and ethics coincide because psychology is the study of human behavior. The American Psychological Association (APA) Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct was created to protect research participants, the reputation of psychology, and psychologists themselves. The first version of the guideline was published by the APA in 1953. The need for such a document came after psychologists were taking on more professional and public roles post-World War II. However, there were a few studies during the middle part of the 20th century that had questionable ethical standards that are still analyzed to this day. I will examine the ethical concerns of a few famous research studies along with comparing and contrasting them in relation to today’s version of the APA’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct.
The first experiment and study I will analyze are that of Mischel and colleagues, which was conducted in the 1960s that measured preschoolers’ ability to delay gratification. It was known as the “marshmallow test.” What began as a set of experiments with preschoolers turned into a study that spanned the participants’ entire lives, providing insight into the development and implications of self-regulating oneself over the course of one’s life. The experiment consisted of 500 participants, primary children of students and faculty of Stanford University of the 1960s and 1970s. The study was not originally planned to span the course of multiple years. Basically, the experiment consisted of children being led into a room where there were treats on the table, and the children can eat the treats freely, but if they waited 15 minutes without giving in to the temptation, they would be rewarded with a second treat. The experiment then continued studying the participants for another 30 years to see if there was a correlation between delayed gratification and future success. The study tends to follow the guidelines set forth by the APA. The lone enforceable standard that the study violates is that of “Minimizing Intrusions to Privacy.” Rather than cutting off ties with the participants once the experiment was concluded, the researchers continuously checked in with participants for a period of 30 years to gain insight into whether the original results had any correlation with future success. Overall, the experiment and future studies followed all the guidelines outlined by the APA in its Ethics Code.
Next, I will delve into Asch’s Conformity Experiment conducted in the 1950s which demonstrated the tendency of subjects to conform when exposed to the social pressure of a unanimous majority. For the experiment, two cards were used with lines drawn on them. One card had one line on it and the second card had three lines. The card with three lines had a line drawn on it that matched the length of the line on the other card. Participants were asked to point out the line that matched the line on the other card. The experiment consisted of participants that were clueless as to the nature of the experiment and actors that were told to answer a certain way. On 12 of the 18 trials, the actors were told to answer a certain way unanimously. Of the 24 participants that were not actors, 15 answered the way the actors did. This study, along with the “Marshmallow Experiment” conducted by Mischel et al. in the 1960s also tends to follow all the guidelines set forth by the APA. The only possible ethical dilemma brought on by this experiment is a high degree of deception. Actors were told to answer a certain way to sway and deceive participants into answering a certain way, granted this experiment would not be possible without a degree of deception. Overall, it was a relatively ethical experiment that had not put participants in jeopardy of any sort of harm.
Finally, I will examine two of the most famous psychological studies that set out to contest the “nature” of conformity. These studies are the Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment. The basic premise of these two experiments was to study obedience to authority. The Milgram Experiment used to pain and the Stanford Prison Experiment used perceived power. The Milgram Experiment set out to study participants’ willingness to do harm to others just by simply obeying an authority figure or being cooperative. Participants were instructed to use electric shocks on other people simply for not learning certain things fast enough. The electric shocks gradually got stronger and reached lethal levels if the shocks were real. The experiment concluded that people are willing to obey authority out of fear or just to simply appear cooperative even though the acts do not align with their own personal beliefs. The Milgram Experiment had many ethical issues beginning with deception. Participants were deceived into believing that they were administering electrical shocks to other people even though it was not true. Participants were made to believe physical pain was being used against other people causing psychological distress to the participants. Another ethical dilemma with the experiment was that participants were not allowed to withdraw consent during the experiment. Participants were urged to continue administering shocks and causing physical pain to others even though they requested to discontinue the experiment. This lack of ability to withdraw consent also questions the validity of the findings. If the study found that participants acted under their own power, then the claim participants were not able to withdraw consent would falsify that conclusion.
Just like Milgram’s Experiment, the Stanford Prison Experiment studied people’s obedience to authority. For the Stanford Prison Experiment though, participants were divided into two groups, “prisoners” and “guards.” The experiment was quickly abandoned after six days because the participants took on their roles to a high degree. The “guards” would abuse the “prisoners” physically and mentally. The experiment concluded that perceived power plays a prominent role in human behavior. People let the power bestowed upon them get the better of them and used that power to hurt others. The famous experiment has been deemed unethical by many scholars and has been debated to this day. The first ethical dilemma, just like the Milgram experiment, was the degree of deception. The deceiving practices associated with this experiment were that the consent form lacked transparency and did not contain verbiage on everything that was going to happen during the experiment. Participants were not made aware of every single detail associated with the study. In addition to the lack of transparency, participants could stray away from following the consent form in that physical abuse was tolerated. The psychological and physical abuse of some of the participants lays the groundwork for the next ethical issue. “Guards” were allowed to abuse “prisoners” during the experiment. Some guards enforced authoritarian measures and subjected the “prisoners” to psychological torture. “Guards” would also inflict physical pain on the “prisoners” to gain compliance. This sort of abuse jeopardized the health and safety of the participants of the experiment. Participants could have suffered injuries and long-term trauma following the experiment making this incredibly unethical.
In conclusion, studies and experiments have been conducted throughout human history to gain knowledge on infinite topics. Sometimes curiosity preceded ethics in trying to understand certain things, which is why the APA created a set of guidelines to follow when conducting research and experiments. The four experiments mentioned in the previous paragraphs all vary in their level of ethical dilemmas, but all are very important experiments in the field of psychology and have contributed to our general knowledge of human behavior.