In the past, they haven’t always been good about taking care of the fellow human beings they’re studying. A lot of historical psychology experiments would be considered unethical by todays standards.
And the foundation of the ethical standards we use today comes from the 1970s when scientists came up with a list of rules to protect the security and privacy of human volunteers. Its known as the Belmont Report: basically, three key ethical principles to guide all human research.
The first point is called respect for persons, and it means that subjects have to give informed consent. Anyone who participates in human research including psychology research needs to know the risks and benefits of the experiment before signing up.
The second ethical principle is called beneficence, and it means that researchers should try not to have any negative impact on the well-being of the people who participate in their studies.
The final point, justice, involves making sure that subjects aren’t exploited. Researchers should also make sure that the burdens of the study and the benefits of the results are distributed fairly.
In early research studies, for example, the subjects would often be poor, while wealthier patients would benefit from the results of the experiment, and thats not okay. These rules apply to human research in all fields, including psychology.
But the code of conduct hasn’t always been so clearly defined. And before it was, there were a lot of questionable studies being done. In the year 1920, psychology named Johnathon wanted to show that humans can be classically conditioned.
Classical conditioning means pairing a stimulus, like food, that triggers a physical response, like drooling, with an unrelated stimulus, like a bell. Even though a ringing bell, of course, would normally make dogs drool, when Pavlov paired the sound with food, he conditioned the dogs to respond to the bell by drooling.
Watson and his team decided to prove that this could be done in humans by classically conditioning a 9-month-old baby named Albertusing animals and scary noises. First, the researchers presented Albert with a fuzzy white rat.
As he reach out to pet the animal, the psychology would strike a hammer against a metal bar behind his head, creating a loud noise to startle him. Eventually, just the sight of the white rat was enough to make Albert start crying and crawl away.
He’d begun to associate the fear of the loud, scary noise with the fuzzy white rat. So yeah, Albert had been conditioned. But this study failed in a lot of ways. For one thing, it used a single subject and no controls.
So Watson hadn’t proved anything. But then of course there were the ethical issues. Watson never reconditioned Albert to not be afraid anymore, so he was permanently affected by the experiment, and not in a good way.
We also don’t know if Albert’s mother fully consented to the research. Which violates the main ethical principles of the Belmont Report. And this wasn’t the only horrifying psychology experiment conducted on children in the early 20th century.
In the late 1930s, a psychology named Wendell Johnson and his graduate student Mary Tudor at the University of Iowa wanted to know how positive and negative feedback affected the way children learned the language.
Negative and Positive Feedback
They decided to test this directly, by giving kids positive and negative feedback on speech disorders. That might not sound so bad, but there’s a reason why their experiment is now known as the Monster Study.
Tudor recruited 22 children from an orphanage, told them theyd be given speech therapy, and split them into two groups. Ten of these children five in each grouphad early signs of stutters.
But, both groups also included kids with normal speech patterns. The kids in one group were told they didn’t have a stutter. They were given positive feedback: that they outgrow the speech difficulties, and that they should ignore anyone who criticized the way they spoke.
He decided to see how subjects would react when a researcher pushed them to do things that went against their morals. The study he came up with is now called the Milgram Experiment. And it had three separate roles: The Experimenter, played by a scientist in a white lab coat, was the authority figure.
The Teacher was the role assigned of the experimental subject. The final role was the Learner, a paid actor who the subject thought was another volunteer. The Learner was sent to a separate room so they were out of sight while the Experimenter observed the Teacher, the subject, instructing the Learner in a word-pairing task over an intercom.
Every time the Learner got the word pair wrong, the Teacher pressed a button to shock them, with the voltage increasing by 15 volts for every wrong answer. The subject believed they were shocking the learner, but they were listening to an actor pretending to be in pain, complaining of chest pains, shouting, pounding on the wall, and eventually going silent.
The experiment only ended when the Teacher had given the maximum 450-volt shock three times in a row, or when they refused to continue. 65% of the subjects did give out those maximum voltage shocks just because a scientist in a white lab coat told them to.
Milgram concluded that people will obey authority figures even in morally questionable circumstances, and the experiment has since led to many more studies on the psychology of authority. But the subjects thought they were listening to someone being electrocuted on the other end of the line, even though they were told by the Experimenter that there would be, quote, no permanent tissue damage.
Leaving your subjects feeling like they may have just killed someone doesn’t protect their wellbeing. And they couldn’t have gotten informed consent since warning participants about the experiment would have changed how they reacted.
Since then, there have been other studies that led people to believe they might be hearing someone get seriously injured. In 1964, a woman named Kitty Genovese was murdered. At the time, newspapers reported that there were more than 30 witnesses to the murder and that none of them called the police.
We now know that those reports were flawed, but for a while, it seemed like dozens of people just stood by while someone was murdered right in front of them. So in 1968, psychology John Darley and Bibby Lateen at Columbia University came up with a way to learn more about why people might not act in a crisis, especially if there are others around.
In the End
They placed college student volunteers alone in rooms, gave them headphones, and told them that the study was about the emotional issues faced by students. Each subject was told that they would be communicating with a few other students over the intercom to avoid any privacy issues that might come up if they were face-to-face.
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