Ethics is that which is regarded as acceptable in human behaviour in pursuit of certain goals. Ethics are determined at a personal and professional level, the latter being described in a ‘Code of Conduct’ produced by professional organisations. These guidelines have largely been developed in response to the kinds of concerns highlighted in studies of conformity and obedience.
Ethical issues in conformity and obedience studies
One issue that needs to be raised in relation to Asch’s work is ethics. The people who took part in the studies were clearly both deceived and subjected to stress. Is it clear what steps Asch took to minimise these problems?
Undoubtedly, the major criticism of the Milgram study has always been the ethical issues surrounding the methodology. Many of the participants were put into a very distressed state and this certainly contravenes most ethical codes. However, it must be remembered that 84% of participants said they were glad to have taken part.
The study by Zimbardo has also been used to highlight ethical issues in psychological investigations. Despite all being ‘volunteers’ in the sense that the prisoners all agreed to take part in the study beforehand, several of them were very seriously affected by their experiences. The signs of stress were so great that the experiment had to be terminated after just six days.
The use of ethical guidelines
All the major national psychological organisations, such as the BPS, now publishes ethical guidelines for research with human participants. There are also guidelines for research with animals.
However it is important to remember that codes of conduct are not sufficient in themselves to guarantee that research is ethical. The BPS guidelines (1978) started with this preamble: “The understanding of human behaviour ameliorates the human condition and enhances human dignity... The balance between the interests of the...