Psychology Assignment1; Ethics Committee Evaluations

Ethics Committee Evaluations
Ethics Committee Evaluations

Imagine you are a member of the Ethical Review Committee for a reputable university. It is the committee’s responsibility to evaluate and either approve or disapprove proposals submitted by faculty members who want to use either humans or animals for research experiments.

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The proposals describe the experiments, including potential benefits of the research as well as any discomfort or harm that they may cause the subjects. You must either approve the research or deny permission for the experiments. It is not your job to suggest improvements on technical aspects of the projects, such as experimental design.


For each of the following four cases, explain why you would either approve or disapprove the proposed research experiments. Evaluate each proposal based on the four main principles of ethical research provided in this lesson. Every research experiment must follow all four principles to be considered ethical.


Proposal: Dr. Croller is studying the effects of separation anxiety on young children. To determine the reaction of 5 year olds under stress, he is planning a naturalistic observation where the subjects (a mother and her child) walk through the aisles of a supermarket. When the child is unaware, the mother will slip away and hide out of sight of the child.

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Graduate students will film the child’s reaction and use a tally sheet of anxious behaviors to measure the child’s level of anxiety. Dr. Croller believes that if he can prove this is an anxiety-producing event, he can use this in the future as part of an experiment to teach children self-reliance through learned survival techniques.

Response: I would definitely deny this study. This is very unethical because Dr. Croller is going to inflict great harm by tricking the children into believing their mother abandoned them, which is not an appropriate use of deception. Likewise, the information learned in the study does not validate the harm caused by the professor’s methods.

Case 1

The Psychology Department is requesting permission from your committee to use 10 rats per semester for demonstrations in a physiological psychology class. The students will work in groups of three: each group will be given a rat.

The students will first perform surgery on the rats. Each animal with be anesthetized. Following standard surgical procedures, an incision will be made in the scalp and two holes drilled in the animal’s skull. Electrodes will be lowered into the brain to create lesions on each side. The animals will then be allowed to recover.

Several weeks later, the effects of destroying this part of the animal’s brain will be tested in a shuttle avoidance task in which animals will learn when to cross over an electrified grid. The instructor admits the procedure is a common demonstration and that no new information will be gained from the experiment. She argues, however, that students taking a course in psychology must have the opportunity to engage in small animal surgery to see firsthand the effects of brain legions.

Case 2

Your university includes a college of veterinary medicine. In the past, the students practiced surgical techniques on dogs acquired from a local animal shelter. There have been some objections to this practice and the veterinary school wants the approval of your committee to continue this practice. They make the following points:

1. Almost all of the animals will eventually be killed at the animal shelter. It is wasteful of life to breed animals for the vet school when there is an ample supply of animals that will be euthanized anyway.

2. It costs at least 10 times as much to breed animals for research purposes.

3. Research with dogs from animal shelters and the practice surgeries will, in the long run, aid the lives of animals by training veterinarians.

A local group of animal welfare activists demanded that you deny the school’s request. They argue that the majority of these animals are lost or stolen pets and it is tragic to think that previously loved dogs could end up on a surgical table for an experiment. Furthermore, they claim that as people become aware that animals taken to shelters may end up in research laboratories, they will stop using the shelters and simply set these animals free.

Case 3

Dr. Hames is requesting permission to do a sleep deprivation study involving young children. He has hypothesized that children between the ages of five and seven need uninterrupted sleep to do well with basic memory functions.

He has proposed a study where children in this age category will be awakened each hour during one night in his laboratory, and then tested on basic memory abilities. These results will then be compared with those obtained after a normal night of sleep. He is offering parents a $250 incentive if they will agree to allow their children to participate in this study. The children will be given a gift card to a local toy store for their participation.

Case 4

Professor Lennon is planning to do a research study to show the outcome of a serious back injury involving the spine and the possible effects on the part of the brain affecting balance and coordination. To conduct her study, she will need volunteers to have a painful spinal tap procedure which would simulate the damage associated with severe back injuries.

The spinal taps have a slight chance of causing severe pain that could last for several days. There is also a very slight risk of nerve damage that could cause some short-term paralysis. Subjects will be informed of the risks involved and will be paid $1200 for the spinal tap and for a six night stay that will be required to evaluate the outcome after this procedure.

01.07: Ethics Committee Evaluations (Rubric)

Requirements/Description of TaskPoints PossibleStudent Points
Statement of approval or disapproval – scenario 13 
Statement of approval or disapproval – scenario 23 
Statement of approval or disapproval – scenario 33 
Statement of approval or disapproval – scenario 43 
Detailed explanation as to the logic of decision based on the four principles of ethics – scenario 16 
Detailed explanation as to the logic of decision based on the four principles of ethics – scenario 26 
Detailed explanation as to the logic of decision based on the four principles of ethics – scenario 36 
Detailed explanation as to the logic of decision based on the four principles of ethics – scenario 46 
Proper spelling, grammar, and capitalization – scenario 11 
Proper spelling, grammar, and capitalization – scenario 21 
Proper spelling, grammar, and capitalization – scenario 31 
Proper spelling, grammar, and capitalization – scenario 41 


The researcher may not mentally or physically harm the participants. This standard is pretty obvious, but it can be the most dangerous.

Watson, a founder of the behavioral perspective, attempted to train a baby to fear a white lab rat by pairing loud sounds with the presence of the rat. Are you OK with this? This landmark study, which would never be approved by a modern ethics committee, proved that just because we can do something, does not necessarily mean we should.


The word "consent" with a green check mark behind it © 2010 FLVS

The subjects must provide clear, informed consent in writing to participate in the study and they are free to withdraw from the study at any time.

Everyone participating in the study must know that they are in a psychology research project. You cannot just go down to the mall and start experimenting on unsuspecting folks. The participants might not know exactly what they are getting themselves into (see #3), but you must have their signed informed consent. Likewise, the subjects are participants, not prisoners. At any point, they may leave the study.

If deception is used, the participants must be debriefed upon completion of the study.


Deception  is a fancy word for lying, but “lying” sounds so underhanded and dastardly. In many cases, if the participants were aware of what the scientists were researching, they would alter their natural behavior to conform to the expectations of what they should be doing rather than what they usually do.

Man with his fingers crossed behind his back © 2010 iStockphoto

A magnificent example of deception was conducted by Stanley Schachter. Schachter, a pioneer of motivational psychology, studied obesity and the factors that motivate us to eat, specifically the internal triggers that tell us our body needs compared to external cues that inspire us to eat even when we aren’t hungry (like that billboard of a gigantic bag of golden French fries). If Schachter showed his subjects a series of food advertisements and asked them if they inspired hunger, the subjects would catch on to what he was doing. Obesity is an emotionally charged topic that can stir feelings of embarrassment, so Schachter devised a scheme to trick his participants into honesty.

He advertised that he required subjects for a study on memory and that all participants would receive a free lunch as compensation for their time. As soon as the participants arrived, they all received their free grub, as promised, but this wasn’t exactly a reward. Schachter needed to ensure the subjects were not hungry to the next stage of the study.

Next, the participants were ushered to a private seating area where they were to fill out the consent form (see #2) and a report of demographics for later statistical use. All the while, there was a candy bowl filled with yummy goodies there for the pillaging. This was the real experiment; Schachter wanted to see if the participants would be inspired to eat the available candy even though they had just eaten lunch. Low and behold, the people who were of average or athletic weight focused more on their internal cues for hunger and didn’t eat the candy while the overweight and obese participants ate the candy despite their full bellies.

After a while, a researcher would come in to the room and  debrief the participant regarding Schachter’s sneaky deception. Even though he did lie about his intentions, this hunger revelation empowered Schachter’s subjects and helped them to make healthier dietary choices.

A little deception goes a long way, but you always must explain yourself in the end.


Manilla envelope stamped "Confidential" © 2010 iStockphoto

All private information is kept confidential.

Some opponents of the use of deception in psychological research claim that lying violates the trust of the participants. The subjects place their faith and personal information in the psychologist’s hands, trusting that this information will be kept private. While deception may sometimes be necessary, privileged information always must be kept confidential.

Ethics in Animal Research

White lab rat © 2010 iStockphoto

This a tough one because people sign up for studies of their own volition, but what about the lab rats and other animals involved in psychological research who have no say in the matter?

Just as there is a code of ethical treatment of humans, animals are protected by a similar set of rules. Some psychologists avoid the use of animals in research as a matter of principle, while others rely on them.

As any controversial issue, animal use in research is debatable. We would not have vaccines for any animal or human diseases without animal test subjects, but how many chimpanzees will we allow to be euthanized before we abandon a vaccine for HIV?

Each animal research case is presented to an ethics committee as well and is judged based on its humane treatment of the animals involved as well as the potential results of the study.

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