Social Psychology

Student Learning Program

Chapter 2: The role of ethics and values in research (pp. 47–53)

Ask Yourself?

In this topic

  1. Being Fair to Participants (pp. 48–50)
    1. The use of deception in research
  2. Being Helpful to Society (pp. 52–53)
Being Fair to Participants

In order to treat participants fairly, researchers should ensure they know what they will experience throughout the study before they agree to take part. If deception is used, the participants should be told what the study was about after completion.

Research activity: The importance of treating participants fairly

The primary obligation of researchers is to avoid harming the participants. One way to ensure this is to keep participants' responses and actions completely anonymous and unidentifiable. Distress during or after participation in the research should also be minimized as much as possible.

In order to conduct their research ethically, researchers must obtain a participant's informed consent. This means that individuals can make an informed decision about participating in the study, and are given the opportunity to withdraw from the study at any time without penalty. It does not mean that participants will know every detail about the study.

The use of deception in research

Many ethical questions arise when deception is used in research. Often, participants are misled about what they believe will happen to them. The consequences of deception can be benign, but can also be extremely stressful.

So why use deception? Deception is important to combat biases such as the social desirability bias and demand characteristics. Deception is necessary in studies examining socially sensitive topics, in order to produce valid results.

When deception is used, participants are informed of this deception, and of the study's goals, through debriefing. The goals of debriefing are to allow the participants to raise questions and concerns; to have the researcher fully explain the purpose and methods of the experiment, as well as the use of deception; and to deal with any possible negative effects the research has had on participants, in order to provide them with more positive attitudes about themselves and their actions.

Institutional Review Boards, made up of scientists and community members, were established in the mid-1970s to deal with decisions about research ethics. The Boards can ask for changes in a research plan, or deny its approval, if ethics are being violated.

Being Helpful to Society

Valid social-psychological research can help provide evidence to help society and individuals make decisions about moral or ethical questions.

Scientists often disagree about how scientific research findings should be applied to society; each researcher must decide for him- or herself how the findings can best serve society.

Most importantly: social psychology is an empirical science; it cannot and will not answer moral and ethical questions. However, scientific research can inform society about relevant topics, so that each individual can form his or her own opinion on questions of morality and ethics.

So what does this mean?

When conducting scientific research, it is crucial for researchers to treat participants fairly. The best way to do this is by asking the participants for informed consent before they take part in the experiment, thereby ensuring they understand what they will experience throughout the study. Often deception is needed in certain studies; if this is the case, debriefing must follow the research, in which the researcher explains fully to the participants what the goals of the research and the deception were. Although social psychologists cannot provide answers to moral and ethical questions, scientific research can help inform society on the relevant topics of those questions.

Back to chapter 2 introduction

In this chapter

  1. Chapter 2 introduction
  2. Research questions and the role of theory
  3. Testing theories: From theory to research
  4. The role of ethics and values in research
  5. Chapter overview (PDF)
  6. Fill-in-the-blanks
  7. Multiple-choice questions