Ethics in psychological research and testing is one of the most important issues today. The Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted over 40 years ago, brought these ethical issues into the limelight and remains one of the most controversial studies in the history of studying human behavior. This paper aims to define ethics, describe risk/benefit ratio, provide a brief background on the Stanford Prison Experiment, and evaluate the impact it has had on psychological research.
The Stanford Prison Experiment
The Stanford Prison Experiment probably tops a lot of lists when it comes to the issue of unethical research. It cannot be replicated today due to its inability to meet the standards established by numerous ethical codes, including the American Psychological Association’s Ethics Code. Nevertheless, the Stanford Prison Experiment remains one of the most important studies in how situations can influence human behavior. According to Cherry (2010), “The study recently garnered attention after reports of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses in Iraq became known. Many people, including Zimbardo himself, suggest that the abuses at Abu Ghraib might be real-world experiences of the same results observed in Zimbardo’s experiment.” Ethics
Ethics refers to the moral standards that govern an individual, group, or societal behavior. Research in the field of psychology deals with a number of issues, and maintaining ethical practices are imperative in ensuring the participants, the knowledge being sought, and the study itself characterize utmost integrity. In order to ensure that researchers know their ethical responsibility in seeking knowledge and improving the quality of life, the American Psychological Association has completed an Ethics Code “that deals with such diverse issues as sexual harassment, fees for psychological services, providing advice to public in the media, test, construction, and classroom teaching” (Shaughnessy, Zechmeister & Zechmeister, 2009). Before a study can begin, it must be reviewed to determine if it meets ethical standards; these are determined in colleges and universities by Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), which ensure that researchers keep participants from harm and uphold their human rights. According to Shaughnessy, Zechmeister & Zechmeister (2009), “The IRB has the authority to approve, disapprove, or require modifications of the research plan prior to its approval of the research. The IRB also has an ethical responsibility to make sure its review of research proposals is fair by considering the perspectives of the institution, the researcher, and the research participants” (pp 62-63). The Risk/Benefit Ratio
The risk/benefit ratio asks whether or not a proposed study or experiment is worth the exercise. When a research proposal is presented to members of an IRB, they aim to reach a consensus based on subjective evaluation of the risks and benefits of the study, both to the individual participants and society as a whole. Since the complete absence of risk or benefit are greatly improbable, a balance must be present in a study; understanding the nature of the risk and the extent of calculated benefit to the participant must be taken into consideration, in addition to the potential scientific value of the study. According to Shaughnessy, Zechmeister & Zechmeister (2009), “When the risks outweigh the potential benefits, then the IRB does not approve the research; when the benefits outweigh the risks, the IRB approves the research” (p 64). Risks in psychological research may include physical injury, social injury, and mental or emotional stress, and risks must be assessed in terms of the effects on an individual participant’s daily activities, physical and mental health, and capabilities (Shaughnessy, Zechmeister & Zechmeister , 2009). The bottom line is, a researcher must aim to protect participants from any emotional or mental stress, which includes “stress that might arise due to participants’...
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