Ethical issues in social science research are of crucial importance not only to the individuals involved, but also to society. An understanding of what is and is not permissible arose through decades of debate beginning immediately after World War II, when information regarding how Nazi scientists treated prisoners in their care became general knowledge due to the Nuremberg trials. For instance, prisoners were placed into tubs of ice water to gauge the length of time it took to die from hypothermia; this was done in order to research how to save German pilots shot down over the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. The “high-altitude” experiments, in which prisoners were placed in a decompression chamber so the effects of too-little oxygen could be measured, were especially barbaric. Many subjects had their brains extracted and examined, though they were not dead and had not received any medication—they were, in essence, vivisected. Other experiments included injecting deadly poison into Russian prisoners in order to determine the precise amount of time needed for death and amputating the limbs of prisoners in order to see how quickly they bled to death.
Germany was not the only country to engage in unethical experiments. The Tuskegee syphilis study, which took place in Tuskegee, Alabama from 1932 to 1972, withheld vital information from 300 poor, illiterate Black sharecroppers regarding their potentially fatal illness. The authorities lied about what the farmers had contracted, and the sharecroppers did not receive penicillin—a life-saving medication available at any doctor’s office. Instead, they were told that they possessed “bad” blood. Why would American doctors willingly lie to American citizens, though the lie was potentially life threatening? The government was investigating the effects of untreated syphilis and, by the time the subjects were aware of the nature of their illness, many had already died.
During 1961, Stanley Milgram conducted experiments concerning obedience to authority. Milgram grew fascinated with the subject due to stories told by various Nazis during the Nuremberg trials. Without fail (regardless of the defendant’s rank), each stated the same thing—they were not guilty; rather, all they did was follow orders. When asked if they found their tasks odious, all said yes, but it made no difference because they had been instructed by a superior. Milgram recruited individuals, ranging in age from 20 to 50, with a variety of educational backgrounds. One individual, the “teacher,” would ask the “learner” questions, and if the reply was incorrect, the teacher administered an electric shock. The shock grew stronger with each successive wrong answer. A wall separated the teacher from the learner, and though they could not see each other, they could hear each other’s voices.
The subjects acting as teachers did not realize it, but the “shocks” being administered were fake. In reality, the “learner” was a confederate of the researcher, and the scream the teacher heard was a tape designed especially for the experiment. The study was conducted to see how far an individual would go if instructed by a superior, even if what he or she did was unethical or dangerous. The results were nothing short of stupefying. Each participant could have stopped the experiment at any time, but no one did. Approximately 65% of the teachers administered a “shock” they assumed to be of 450 volts, strong enough to cause death.
In 1971, Stanford psychologist Phillip Zimbardo conducted his famed “prison” experiment. Zimbardo received a grant from the U.S. Navy in order to determine why it was experiencing problems within its prison system. Zimbardo built a prison facsimile in the Stanford psychology building and hired undergraduates to play both prison guards and prisoners. During the study, both groups of participants started deviating from their assigned parts. The prisoners grew weak and docile, while the guards’ behavior grew increasingly vicious and cruel. Zimbardo had to stop the study when it became clear that the participants were losing control. For instance, the guards became increasingly sadistic by forcing the prisoners to exercise until exhausted, by not allowing the prisoners to use the bathroom (causing them to urinate on themselves), and by preventing “bad” prisoners from sleeping.
Ethical Decision Making
In the years since the studies listed above were conducted, researchers realized that they needed to reassert an ethical imperative to consider all research as potentially resulting in harm to the participant and bringing that possibility to bear on the decision to conduct the research or not. In order to achieve this goal, research must be designed to meet certain standards with respect to basic moral, legal, and ethical principles. Individuals taking part in a study must give voluntary consent. This can only be given if the individual knows the study’s purpose and is fully aware of the potential costs and benefits of inclusion in it. At no point should someone feel coerced into taking part in a study. The use of force is strictly prohibited, and voluntary consent is designed to prevent just such a scenario from developing.
Each individual involved in the study should give informed consent. This can only be given if the subject understands fully any inherent risks (either psychological or physical) that could arise from becoming a participant. In addition, informed consent means that each individual has been told all relevant facts regarding inclusion in the study. If a researcher needs children or adolescents for the study, the parent or legal guardian must give consent. In research using people with illnesses, each participant should be told about other therapies that could possibly be beneficial in treating his or her illness.
Each individual taking part should be told that he or she can expect confidentiality. This means that any private or personal information gathered during the course of the study will be seen only by those directly involved in the study. The two primary exceptions to the requirement for confidentiality are (a) the participant is in danger of hurting himself or herself, or (b) the participant is in danger of hurting someone else.
Occasionally, moments will arrive when the desire to conduct first-rate research runs head-on against the rights of likely subjects. No set of ethical rules could ever predict each and every ethical dilemma that might arise when using human participants. In order to make sure the rights and liberties of research subjects are never truncated, Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) have been created to assist in reviewing research. The IRB is a group of individuals who review research proposals in order to make sure that researchers do not behave unethically with a study’s participants.
Ethical codes were designed to protect subjects, and the following six principles are considered priority guidelines in research.
- Autonomy refers to allowing subjects or clients to make their own decisions, with the researcher or therapist respecting any choices made.
- Nonmaleficence means doing no harm. The counselor’s or researcher’s responsibility is to avoid hurting clients, even when the counselor’s or researcher’s intentions are just.
- Beneficence means doing good for clients or subjects.
- Justice means treating all clients with respect, regardless of their race, color, religion, or creed.
- Fidelity means making honest promises and honoring commitments.
- Veracity refers to truthfulness.
Overall, responsibility for ethical conduct of research rests on the individual researcher, the university IRB, and the researcher’s profession.
- American Counseling Association. (2005). Code of ethics. Alexandria, VA: Author.
- Corey, G., Corey, M. S., & Callanan, P. (1998). Issues and ethics in the helping professions (5th ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.
- Elliott, D., & Stern, J. E. (1997). Research ethics: A reader. Hanover, NH: Institute for the Study of Applied and Professional Ethics.
- Shamoo, A. E., & Resnik, D. B. (2002). Responsible conduct of research. New York: Oxford University Press.