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Ethics in Psychology Research

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Sensitive topics in research require careful planning to uphold ethical behavior- the moral standards that guide decision-making.

Designing studies in an ethical manner requires a balancing act between the benefits of the research and the costs or risk of harm to participants.

This decision process is referred to as a cost-benefit analysis, in which the study’s intent outweighs the high costs or risks of harm for those involved.

By applying ethical principles, this video demonstrates how to design, perform, analyze, and interpret an experiment about interpersonal aggression. Importantly, researchers study anger towards others without resorting to physical harm by incorporating more benign forms of aggressive behavior.

For this experiment, consider two sensitive topics, negative feedback and aggression, that require cost-benefit analyses to demonstrate ethical compliance.

Negative feedback towards participants might entail a number of different forms, including: medical results that indicate disease, a diagnostic test that indicates low IQ, harsh commentary on physical appearance, or severe criticism on written work.

Aggression could involve a number of behaviors, such as being verbally abusive to the participant, physically pushing the participant, administering an electrical shock to the participant, or giving the participant a foul-tasting drink.

Here, the experiment will focus on providing severe criticism on participant’s written work.

Using a two-group design, all participants write a paragraph about a day at the beach. One group receives negative feedback in the form of negative comments, whereas the second group receives neutral feedback, or no comments.

After receiving criticism, participants are asked to choose a beverage for their paragraph evaluator’s friend. The beverage choice correlates to the level of aggression displayed by the participant.

The hypothesis of the experiment is negative feedback induces aggression that would be taken out on another individual.

Thus, those who receive negative comments are expected to retaliate and choose more distasteful drink choices than those who receive no comments.

To conduct the experiment, gather the informed consent and final debriefing papers, a black pen, and a blank piece of paper. In a different room, you will need: dice, a red pen, index cards, 5 cups of water, a tray or platter, and portions of sugar, lemon juice, vinegar, and hot sauce.

To begin the experiment, meet the participant in the lab. Guide all participants through the consent process and discuss the overall plan for the session.

With the participant sitting at a desk, ask them to write a brief paragraph that describes a day at the beach. After the participant finishes, inform them that another researcher will evaluate the paragraph over the next 5 min.

Once in another room, roll dice to randomly determine the kind of feedback the participant receives. Assign negative feedback for an even number, and write comments on the paragraph with a red pen. If the dice roll results in an odd number, assign neutral feedback, and do not make any marks on the page.

After providing feedback, return the paragraph to the participant. Suggest that they read over the comments when you leave the room to set-up the next phase of the experiment.

While the participant waits, prepare five different beverages that range from pleasant to unpleasant tastes: highly sugared water, lemon water, plain water, vinegar in water, and hot sauce in water.

Then, label five different index cards with a number on one side and description on the other. Arrange each pair on a platter.

After arranging the platter, carry it into the room with the participant. Explain what each beverage contains. Instruct them to choose one beverage for the evaluator’s friend to drink in the other room. Record the number associated with the chosen beverage.

At the conclusion of the experiment, debrief participants and explain why deception was necessary for the experiment.

To analyze how aggressive behavior is expressed after feedback, average the numbers recorded for the chosen beverages in each condition.

The data are then graphed by plotting the mean number in each condition. In this experiment, participants who received negative feedback retaliated and chose a more distasteful beverage for the evaluator’s friend than those in the neutral group who did not receive any feedback.

Now that you are familiar with how psychologists study sensitive topics in an ethical way, let’s take a look at how other researchers are mindful of moral standards that promote safe alternatives for studying troubling and undesirable behaviors.

A recent study found that when video game players lost a game, they were more likely to act aggressively by “trash-talking.” The researcher considered the ethical implications of the design because trash-talking is less risky than physical aggression.

This study uses a social test that reliably induces a stress response in participants.

Physiological measures, such as skin conductance, heart rate and stress hormone levels, are obtained non-invasively through simple monitoring equipment and saliva samples.

Thus, this experiment provides an ethical alternative to painful physical stressors like treadmill running or cold pressor test.

Facing numerous ethical concerns, animal researchers use: within-group designs to reduce the number of unnecessary subjects, behavioral tasks to obtain ethological responses, and administer pharmaceutical agents to minimize pain and suffering.

You’ve just watched JoVE’s introduction to Ethics in Psychological Research. Now you should have a good understanding of how to design and perform the experiment, as well as analyze results and apply the phenomenon.

Thanks for watching! 

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