Discuss the balance of scientific benefit versus ethical costs in psychology.

Topics: Ethics, Psychology, Morality Pages: 5 (1736 words) Published: March 14, 2014
Discuss the balance of scientific benefit versus ethical costs in psychology. It is argued that any psychological research should be done on the basis of a cost-benefit approach: determining whether the benefits for society the study may generate outweigh the ethical costs that participants in the research may experience. Selye’s GAS theory research is an example of a controversial study. Selye aimed to determine the consequences on the physical body when we are put under stress in our everyday lives. After exposing rats to various noxious agents including extremely cold environments, surgical injury, cutting their spinal cords, excessive muscular exercise, and intoxications with sub lethal doses of diverse drugs such as morphine, Selye found that in the first 6-48 hours all rats had physical issues such as ulcers. He then found that if the treatment was continued the appearance and function of the internal organs returned to normal, and treatment was continued indefinitely until they entered the ‘exhaustion’ stage where the immune system was unable to cope thus resulting in mental and physical illness. There were many obvious ethical costs in Selye’s research, as the rats suffered from extreme physical harm and in some cases death – the study could have been done differently in perhaps a less extreme manner. Cutting the spinal cord, for instance, firstly would obviously cause extreme stress to the body and will most likely lead to death, and secondly is not an everyday stressor, therefore there study may be argued as unethical because it wasn’t necessary to use such harsh methods to investigate the aims of the study. As well as this, rats as animals are much more vulnerable because they can’t give consent, express pain or right to withdraw. There is also the issue of the lack of ecological validity because rats are clearly not human beings and so may respond differently to stress, thus the findings weren’t completely generalizable to human beings, again questioning the necessity of the study. On the other hand, Selye’s research is said to have provided a generalizable reaction to stress and it has lead psychologists to providing an understanding of what happens to the body when under stress. It has also lead to more research being done into such behaviour and has had positive implications in the world – for example, we now know that heart disease can be caused by prolonged stress, therefore we know how to treat it. As a result, it could be argued that the saving of thousands of human lives is worth harming a few rats. Milgram’s study is another example of research with many ethical costs. The aim of the study was to test the ‘Germans are different’ hypothesis after the disastrous Holocaust period, and so Milgram paid individuals to take part in what they were lead to believe was an experiment developing research into ‘learning’ when in reality it was looking at obedience. The naïve participant was placed in a room with an electric shock device and was told to provide an electric shock every time the other ‘participant’ – a confederate of the experiment placed in another room– got an answer to a test wrong, going higher in voltage each time. Firstly, an obvious ethical issue of this study is that of the lack of consent and deception due to the use of a confederate, the fact that the electric shocks were false, and the true aim of the experiment being hidden from the participant. As well as this, the BPS guideline of participant’s right to withdraw was breached in the way that participants may have felt pressured into staying and completing the study as they had been paid and the ‘experimenter’ was giving instructions such as ‘the experiment requires you to continue’. This also had the potential to result in psychological harm because it could have increased their anxiety levels. Participants did in fact suffer from significant harm – 3, in fact, had physical seizures, and many looked visibly distressed by digging their...
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