2.4 Conducting Ethical Research

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand the requirements of ethical research.
  2. Describe the bodies that oversee ethical research in Canada.

Psychologists use human and animal subjects in their research. Therefore, safeguarding the wellbeing of these participants is a fundamental requirement. Before psychologists at federally-funded institutions are allowed to conduct research, the ethics of their proposed research is scrutinized by the research and ethics committee at the university to which the researchers are attached, with a couple of exceptions, including archival research and some forms of naturalistic observation. This scrutiny ensures that the proposed research adheres to standard guidelines for conducting ethical research. If the proposed research will cause undue suffering to the research participants, the researchers must revise and rectify their research plan.

The ethical standards for research in psychology have changed over time. You may be familiar with the famous Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by Dr. Philip Zimbardo and colleagues in 1971 (Haney, Banks, & Zimbardo, 1973). Refer to Zimbardo’s website for the Stanford Prison Experiment (n.d.) for additional details. In the experiment, the researchers simulated a prison in the basement of the psychology building on campus and randomly assigned the participants to be guards or prisoners. The prisoners were picked up at home by real police officers and taken to a real police station for processing, until transferred to the simulated jail in the psychology building. The study is infamous for what happened: the prisoners and guards took on their adopted roles with a high degree of verisimilitude. The guards employed harsh, dehumanizing, and punitive disciplinary practices and the prisoners became stressed and depressed. The study had to be stopped after 6 days. Contemporary ethical guidelines would prohibit much of the Stanford Prison Experiment from being replicated in its 1971 form — not the least of which would be the prohibition of the lead researcher to also take on the role of prison superintendent, as was the case with Zimbardo. The suffering of the participants would not outweigh the significance of the findings.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is a good example of how we can learn something important from research. In this case, we learned that aspects of situations can elicit feelings and behaviour that people would not experience otherwise. More significantly, it suggested that people can be made to obey powerful social norms, even if they violate one’s personal moral code. These findings may explain, in part, how war crimes and other acts against humanity can be perpetrated by people who are quite “normal” otherwise. However, just because the results of research tell us something significant that we could not discover otherwise, that is not enough to overcome the ethical constraints that should have required the experimenters to place more importance on the wellbeing of the participants.

Research in psychology may cause some stress, harm, or inconvenience for the people who participate in that research. For instance, researchers may require introductory psychology students to participate in research projects and deceive these students, at least temporarily, about the nature of the research. Psychologists may induce stress, anxiety, or negative moods in their participants. Researchers may use animals in their research, potentially harming them in the process. Animal research is controversial, with ambiguous answers about its advisability.

In Canada, there are two bodies that provide guidelines for ethical human research that must be adhered to. The Canadian Psychological Association has a code of ethics that members must follow (Canadian Psychological Association, 2017), and the Tri-Council Policy Statement 2 (TCPS 2) is the most recent set of guidelines for ethical standards in research adhered to by those doing research with human subjects (Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, & Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, 2019). The three councils are Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The TCPS 2 is based on three core principles: respect for persons, concern for welfare, and justice. Details on these core principle are found in TCPS 2 – Chapter 1: Ethics Framework (2019).

Scientific research has provided information that has improved the lives of many people. Therefore, it is unreasonable to argue that because scientific research has costs, no research should be conducted. This argument fails to consider the fact that there are significant costs to not doing research and that these costs may be greater than the potential costs of conducting the research (Rosenthal, 1994). The research ethics committee at each university provides the oversight needed in individual cases to balance the goals of the research and the welfare of the participants.

Let’s look at some of the requirements of ethical research:

  • Informed consent — Participants must be fully informed about the procedure, including any potential risks and benefits, freely give consent to participate voluntarily, and have the right to withdraw at any time.
  • Protection from harm — Participants’ physical and mental wellbeing must be protected.
  • Right to confidentiality and anonymity — Participants’ identity should not be disclosed, and their responses should be confidential. Note that there are limits to this requirement in cases involving abuse or some forms of criminal activity.
  • Use of deception minimized — Researchers must balance the use of deception, like not disclosing the true purpose of the study, with potential harm to the participants. The use of deception must be justified.
  • Debrief participants — Participants must be fully informed about the purpose of the research and their participation, including being given the chance to discuss it and ask questions of the researcher.
  • Care for vulnerable participants — Researchers must respect the rights of children and other vulnerable populations to participate in research and to have the above requirements safeguarded by an advocate, such as a parent.

The most direct ethical concern of the scientist is to prevent harm to the research participants. One example is the well-known research of Stanley Milgram (1974), who was investigating obedience to authority. In these studies, participants were induced by an experimenter to administer electric shocks to another person so that Milgram could study the extent to which they would obey the demands of an authority figure. Most participants evidenced high levels of stress resulting from the psychological conflict they experienced between engaging in aggressive and dangerous behaviour and following the instructions of the experimenter. Studies like these by Milgram are no longer conducted because the scientific community is now much more sensitized to the potential of such procedures to create emotional discomfort or harm.

Another goal of ethical research is to guarantee that participants have free choice regarding whether they wish to participate in research. Students in psychology classes may be allowed, or even required, to participate in research, but they are also always given an option to choose a different study to be in or to perform other activities instead. Additionally, once an experiment begins, the research participant is always free to leave the experiment if they wish to. Concerns with free choice also occur in institutional settings, such as in schools, hospitals, corporations, and prisons, when individuals are required by the institutions to take certain tests or when employees are told to participate in research.

Researchers must also protect the privacy of the research participants. In some cases, data can be kept anonymous by not having the respondents put any identifying information on their questionnaires. In other cases, the data cannot be anonymous because the researcher needs to keep track of which respondent contributed the data. In this case, one technique is to have each participant use a unique code number to identify their data, such as the last four digits of the student ID number. In this way, the researcher can keep track of which person completed which questionnaire, but no one will be able to connect the data with the individual who contributed them.

Perhaps the most widespread ethical concern to the participants in behavioural research is the extent to which researchers employ deception. Deception occurs whenever research participants are not completely and fully informed about the nature of the research project before participating in it. Deception may occur in an active way, such as when the researcher tells the participants that they are studying learning, when in fact the experiment really concerns obedience to authority. In other cases, the deception is more passive, such as when participants are not told about the hypothesis being studied or the potential use of the data being collected.

Some researchers have argued that no deception should ever be used in any research (Baumrind, 1985). They argue that participants should always be told the complete truth about the nature of the research they are in and that when participants are deceived there will be negative consequences, such as the possibility that participants may arrive at other studies already expecting to be deceived. Other psychologists defend the use of deception on the grounds that it is needed to get participants to act naturally and to enable the study of psychological phenomena that might not otherwise be investigated. They argue that it would be impossible to study topics such as altruism, aggression, obedience, and stereotyping without using deception because if participants were informed ahead of time what the study involved, this knowledge would certainly change their behaviour. The Tri-Council Policy Statement of Canada allows researchers to use deception, but it requires them to explicitly consider how their research might be conducted without the use of deception. If deception is employed, its use must be justified by the potential value of the research, and participants must be debriefed.

Research with animals

Since animals make up an important part of the natural world and since some research cannot be conducted using humans, animals are sometimes participants in psychological research (see Figure 2.11). Most psychological research using animals is now conducted with rats, mice, and birds, and the use of other animals in research is declining (Thomas & Blackman, 1992).



This picture shows a gloved hand holding a white rat.
Figure 2.11. Psychologists may use animals in their research, but they make reasonable efforts to minimize the discomfort the animals experience.

Researchers using animals must comply with requirements of the Canadian Council on Animal Care (2019), the National Research Council of Canada (2019), each university’s animal care committee, and the Canadian Psychological Association (2017). A summary is shown below.



Research Focus

Research guidelines on care of animals

The following are the Canadian Psychological Association’s (CPA) guidelines on research with animals:

  • Treat animals humanely and do not expose them to unnecessary discomfort, pain, or disruption.
  • Do not use animals in research unless there is a reasonable expectation that the research will increase understanding of the structures and processes underlying behaviour, increase understanding of the particular animal species used in the study, or result in benefits to the health and welfare of humans or other animals.
  • Keep up to date with animal care legislation, guidelines, and best practices if using animals in direct service, research, teaching, or supervision.
  • Use a procedure subjecting animals to pain, stress, or privation only if an alternative procedure is unavailable and the goal is justified by its prospective scientific, educational, or applied value.
  • Submit any research that includes procedures that subject animals to pain, stress, or privation to an appropriate panel or committee for review.
  • Make every effort to minimize the discomfort, illness, and pain of animals. This would include using appropriate anaesthesia, analgesia, tranquilization and/or adjunctive relief measures sufficient to prevent or alleviate animal discomfort, pain, or distress when using a procedure or condition likely to cause more than short-term, low-intensity suffering. If killing animals at the termination of a research study, this would include doing so as compassionately and painlessly as possible.
  • Use animals in classroom demonstrations only if the instructional objectives cannot be achieved through the use of electronic recordings, films, computer simulations, or other methods and if the type of demonstration is warranted by the anticipated instructional gain.
  • Encourage others, in a manner consistent with this code, to care responsibly.

Since the use of animals in research involves a personal value, people naturally disagree about this practice. Although many people accept the value of such research (Plous, 1996), some believe that it is ethically wrong to conduct research on animals. This argument is based on the assumption that because animals are living creatures just as humans are, no harm should ever be done to them.

Most scientists, however, reject this view. They argue that such beliefs ignore the potential benefits that have come, and continue to come, from research with animals. For instance, drugs that can reduce the incidence of cancer or AIDS may first be tested on animals, and surgery that can save human lives may first be practised on animals. Research on animals has also led to a better understanding of the physiological causes of depression, phobias, and stress, among other illnesses. In contrast to animal-rights activists, then, scientists believe that because there are many benefits that accrue from animal research, such research can and should continue as long as the humane treatment of the animals used in the research is guaranteed.



Key Takeaways

  • In Canada, two bodies provide guidelines for ethical human research: the Canadian Psychological Association code of ethics and the Tri-Council Policy Statement 2. These guidelines for ethical standards in research are adhered to by those doing research with human subjects.
  • Researchers using animals must comply with requirements of the Canadian Council on Animal Care, the National Research Council of Canada, each university’s animal care committee, and the Canadian Psychological Association.



Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. How might the Stanford Prison Experiment be conducted using contemporary ethical guidelines? Would that even be possible?
  2. Consider how and why animals might be used in psychological research. Do you think this use is justified? Why or why not?


Congratulations on completing Chapter 2! Remember to go back to the section on Approach and Pedagogy near the beginning of the book to learn more about how to get the most out of reading and learning the material in this textbook.

Image Attributions

Figure 2.11. Wistar Rat by Janet Stephens is in the public domain.


Baumrind, D. (1985). Research using intentional deception: Ethical issues revisited. American Psychologist, 40, 165–174.

Canadian Council on Animal Care. (2019). Standards. Retrieved from https://www.ccac.ca/en/standards

Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, & Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. (2019). Tri-council policy statement: Ethical conduct for research involving humans – TCPS2 2018. Retrieved from https://ethics.gc.ca/eng/documents/tcps2-2018-en-interactive-final.pdf

Canadian Psychological Association. (2017). Canadian code of ethics for psychologists (4th ed.). Retrieved from https://cpa.ca/docs/File/Ethics/CPA_Code_2017_4thEd.pdf

Haney, C., Banks, C., & Zimbardo, P. (1973). Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison. International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1(1), 69–97.

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York, NY: Harper and Row.

National Research Council of Canada. (2019). Research involving animal subjects. Retrieved from https://nrc.canada.ca/en/corporate/values-ethics/research-involving-animal-subjects

Plous, S. (1996). Attitudes toward the use of animals in psychological research and education. Psychological Science, 7, 352–358.

Rosenthal, R. (1994). Science and ethics in conducting, analyzing, and reporting psychological research. Psychological Science, 5, 127–134.

Thomas, G. V., & Blackman, D. (1992). The future of animal studies in psychology. American Psychologist, 47(12), 1679.

Zimbardo, P. (n.d.) Stanford prison experiment. Retrieved from https://www.prisonexp.org


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