Psychology is defined as ‘both an academic and applied discipline involving the scientific study of mental processes and behaviour ‘(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychology) that is being applied more to our everyday lives. Psychology is being used in many different settings, such as clinical, occupational and educational and is being used to improve humans’ lives in many different ways.
Psychology has ‘more major ethical issues associated with research… than in most other scientific disciplines’ (Eysenck 2000). Firstly, psychologists work with living creatures (both humans and animals) that all have the right to be treated in a respectful manner. Secondly, ‘research may reveal what seems to be unpleasant or unacceptable facts about human nature’ and thirdly, ‘psychological research may lead to the discovery of powerful techniques that can be used for purposes of social control’ (Eysenck 2000). Humans’ are immensely complicated creatures and great care has to be taken in the way that the research is carried out. Usually ‘most ethical problems in human research stem from the participant being typically in a much less powerful position than the experimenter’ (Eysenck 2000).
The B.P.S (British Psychological Society) introduced a set of ethics that must be adhered to by all psychologists when studying either humans or animals. These ethics are agreed social rules and moral responsibilities and obligations that are in place to stop unnecessary psychological or physical damage occurring to subjects of any research. The main points of the ethics state investigators must consider ethical and psychological implications for research participants and should inform the participants of the objectives of the research and gain their informed consent. The psychologist must not withhold information or mislead participants and the ethics state intentional deception should be avoided.
The participants should be fully debriefed at the end of the research so that they can complete their understanding of the nature of the research, and it must also be emphasised to the participants that they have the right to withdraw from the experiment at any time. All data obtained must be treated as confidential unless otherwise agreed in advance, and all studies based on observation must respect the privacy and psychological well-being of the participants. The investigator must also protect all participants from physical and mental harm during or arising from the investigations, and must also exercise care in giving advice on psychological problems. The ethics also state that all investigators share responsibility for ethical treatment, and should encourage others to rethink their ideas if necessary.
An example of a psychological experiment that is today considered unethical is The Milgram Experiment, which was invented by psychologist Stanley Milgram and was conducted in July 1961. The experiment consisted of a participant giving electric shocks to an actor and its purpose was to measure the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. By modern standards, an experiment of this kind would not be allowed today because of the administering of electric shocks but also participants were not fully debriefed and some participants indicated that they never fully understood the purpose of the experiment.
‘Psychology develops because psychologists conduct research, and from this research conclusions are drawn about the way the human mind works from examining what the research reveals (Hayes & Orrell 1993), that is why it is important that the results are valid and gained in a scientific way.
Another element required to carry out research in psychology is that the research must be scientific. There must be definable subject matter – this changed from conscious human thought to human and non-human behaviour, then to cognitive processes within psychologies first eighty years as a separate discipline. Theory construction is also important as this represents an attempt to explain observed phenomena. Any science must also have hypothesis, and must test them by making specific predictions about human behaviour under certain specified conditions. Also, empirical methods must be used to collect data that is relevant to the hypothesis being tested. The research must also be objective, free from any bias values or views so the results are accurate, and reproducible for the research results to be valid.
‘The ideal scientist states hypotheses and predictions precisely, is sceptical of claims that rest solely on faith or authority, relies on empirical evidence, resists the confirmation bias and complies with the principle of falsifiability, and is open about methods and results so that findings can be replicated’.
(Wade & Tavris 1999)
‘Formal models and associated statistical and computational techniques play an important part in contemporary scientific psychology. This is largely due to the complexity of the phenomena under study, ranging from sensory processes to brain processes to social behaviour, and such complex processes cannot be explained by verbal theories. This has led this century to the development of a complex body of mathematical, statistical and computational psychology research organisations. Psychologists now rank with economists as one of the heaviest users of statistical technology.’