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By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Discuss how research involving human subjects is regulated
  • Summarize the processes of informed consent and debriefing
  • Explain how research involving animal subjects is regulated

Today, scientists agree that good research is ethical in nature and is guided by a basic respect for human dignity and safety. However, as you will read in the feature box, this has not always been the case. Modern researchers must demonstrate that the research they perform is ethically sound. This section presents how ethical considerations affect the design and implementation of research conducted today.

Research involving human participants

Any experiment involving the participation of human subjects is governed by extensive, strict guidelines designed to ensure that the experiment does not result in harm. Any research institution that receives federal support for research involving human participants must have access to an institutional review board (IRB) . The IRB is a committee of individuals often made up of members of the institution’s administration, scientists, and community members ( [link] ). The purpose of the IRB is to review proposals for research that involves human participants. The IRB reviews these proposals with the principles mentioned above in mind, and generally, approval from the IRB is required in order for the experiment to proceed.

A photograph shows a group of people seated around tables in a meeting room.
An institution’s IRB meets regularly to review experimental proposals that involve human participants. (credit: modification of work by Lowndes Area Knowledge Exchange (LAKE)/Flickr)

An institution’s IRB requires several components in any experiment it approves. For one, each participant must sign an informed consent form before they can participate in the experiment. An informed consent    form provides a written description of what participants can expect during the experiment, including potential risks and implications of the research. It also lets participants know that their involvement is completely voluntary and can be discontinued without penalty at any time. Furthermore, the informed consent guarantees that any data collected in the experiment will remain completely confidential. In cases where research participants are under the age of 18, the parents or legal guardians are required to sign the informed consent form.

While the informed consent form should be as honest as possible in describing exactly what participants will be doing, sometimes deception is necessary to prevent participants’ knowledge of the exact research question from affecting the results of the study. Deception involves purposely misleading experiment participants in order to maintain the integrity of the experiment, but not to the point where the deception could be considered harmful. For example, if we are interested in how our opinion of someone is affected by their attire, we might use deception in describing the experiment to prevent that knowledge from affecting participants’ responses. In cases where deception is involved, participants must receive a full debriefing    upon conclusion of the study—complete, honest information about the purpose of the experiment, how the data collected will be used, the reasons why deception was necessary, and information about how to obtain additional information about the study.

Ethics and the tuskegee syphilis study

Unfortunately, the ethical guidelines that exist for research today were not always applied in the past. In 1932, poor, rural, black, male sharecroppers from Tuskegee, Alabama, were recruited to participate in an experiment conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service, with the aim of studying syphilis in black men ( [link] ). In exchange for free medical care, meals, and burial insurance, 600 men agreed to participate in the study. A little more than half of the men tested positive for syphilis, and they served as the experimental group (given that the researchers could not randomly assign participants to groups, this represents a quasi-experiment). The remaining syphilis-free individuals served as the control group. However, those individuals that tested positive for syphilis were never informed that they had the disease.

While there was no treatment for syphilis when the study began, by 1947 penicillin was recognized as an effective treatment for the disease. Despite this, no penicillin was administered to the participants in this study, and the participants were not allowed to seek treatment at any other facilities if they continued in the study. Over the course of 40 years, many of the participants unknowingly spread syphilis to their wives (and subsequently their children born from their wives) and eventually died because they never received treatment for the disease. This study was discontinued in 1972 when the experiment was discovered by the national press (Tuskegee University, n.d.). The resulting outrage over the experiment led directly to the National Research Act of 1974 and the strict ethical guidelines for research on humans described in this chapter. Why is this study unethical? How were the men who participated and their families harmed as a function of this research?

A photograph shows a person administering an injection.
A participant in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study receives an injection.

Research involving animal subjects

Many psychologists conduct research involving animal subjects. Often, these researchers use rodents ( [link] ) or birds as the subjects of their experiments—the APA estimates that 90% of all animal research in psychology uses these species (American Psychological Association, n.d.). Because many basic processes in animals are sufficiently similar to those in humans, these animals are acceptable substitutes for research that would be considered unethical in human participants.

A photograph shows a rat.
Rats, like the one shown here, often serve as the subjects of animal research.

This does not mean that animal researchers are immune to ethical concerns. Indeed, the humane and ethical treatment of animal research subjects is a critical aspect of this type of research. Researchers must design their experiments to minimize any pain or distress experienced by animals serving as research subjects.

Whereas IRBs review research proposals that involve human participants, animal experimental proposals are reviewed by an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC)    . An IACUC consists of institutional administrators, scientists, veterinarians, and community members. This committee is charged with ensuring that all experimental proposals require the humane treatment of animal research subjects. It also conducts semi-annual inspections of all animal facilities to ensure that the research protocols are being followed. No animal research project can proceed without the committee’s approval.


Ethics in research is an evolving field, and some practices that were accepted or tolerated in the past would be considered unethical today. Researchers are expected to adhere to basic ethical guidelines when conducting experiments that involve human participants. Any experiment involving human participants must be approved by an IRB. Participation in experiments is voluntary and requires informed consent of the participants. If any deception is involved in the experiment, each participant must be fully debriefed upon the conclusion of the study.

Animal research is also held to a high ethical standard. Researchers who use animals as experimental subjects must design their projects so that pain and distress are minimized. Animal research requires the approval of an IACUC, and all animal facilities are subject to regular inspections to ensure that animals are being treated humanely.

Personal application questions

Take a few minutes to think about all of the advancements that our society has achieved as a function of research involving animal subjects. How have you, a friend, or a family member benefited directly from this kind of research?

Got questions? Get instant answers now!

Questions & Answers

why they named it psychology
zayn Reply
what is chunking
Ritika Reply
Chunking is a process by which individual pieces of an information set are broken down and then grouped together in a meaningful whole.
what dose it means, operant and classic conditioning in short words?
Mikiyas Reply
scientific method, critical thinking.
jeddy Reply
the dealings with the thought process and human behavior.
for acquiring knowledge by experimentation.
study scientific study of mind and behavior.
scientific study of the human mind and behavior.
hey jeddy I have question s for you
hi what is behavioralism ?
what is psychology..?
the science of mental life.
because emotion can't be measured.
marikrizz Reply
only by the person having the emotion.
it is subjective feeling
only placed within levels of itself
and accepted as extended or beginning versions of emotions that are completely free of restrictions
anyone know, (2+2)/2
Emotions can't be measured, but they can be recognized. To be able to recognize certain characteristics that'll give me an idea about an individual's state of mind.
any one knows (2+2)/2
it is 6
anyone (2+2)/2
then more then just recognize but to comprehend the emotions being observed separating your own emotions from the situation currently in.. and rationally gaging the environment.. while then pulling each possible emotional vibe or energy exerted from the human being observed
How does learning influence behaviour
Tumpa Reply
our choice of study molds us and encourages us to practice what we learn. social structure also changes behavior based on the environment and peers. how we learn can be experimental as not everyone lesrns the same. some are more of a hands-on absorber, whereas others may learn better from listening
A confidence from personal knowledge. Not from having been taugbt. knowledge that you learned what was taught.
life is choice, be ready for the best and be prepare for what yet to come in your way(Destiny)
what is development
Momna Reply
In what Context are you referring to
the progression/degression/growth of something. it is interpreted most commonly in psychology as how something is created or formed. ex: When did you develop an interest in psychology?
when refering to physical, cognitive, and social development, these types of development are determined by many circumstances. such as demographics, biology, and personality/character
it is the apprehensions fluency based by the process of configurations to a design based on product/witness series noticeboards to note the stats on order to retail agreements on stated series order.
I'm on my first year of a psychology course, is there anything I should know? anything you wished you knew when you just started psychology ? because I feel like I'm walking into all of this blindly
Lia Reply
I feel exactly the same. Just about to start Psychology and Criminology. feeling slightly nervous 🙈
and everything is online
only for a few weeks I believe. Unless I have read it wrong. I believe that they will try and filter everyone in.
it's different for every country
I start 9/14. Online as well.
I know very little about Psychology
which area are you specialising in
yeah, everthing your just know, that psychology is everthing come out with, mind, behavior and emotion. and believe, once you study it, you will understand, wjy people act like that.
after a successful job interview,Mr.Abhishek felt relaxed and calm,he stopped sweating and felt hungry,which part of his nervous system was activated
Babaljeet Reply
what is the Borysenko model and why is it important?
It explains the link between stress and diseases ie.. How long term stress on the mind or body can lead to chronic migraines, ulcers, depression...
I understand there is a link between stress and illness and disease. that when you are in high-stress situations for prolonged periods of time that the brain releases an abundance of stress hormones such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, cortisol, and aldosterone. idk anymore than that.
what is the strees anger
what is difference between illness and disease
anyone knows (2+2)/2
Hy everybody any one who can help me to understand the concept of Structuralism in easy words?
sabiha Reply
If you really considered looking into yourself find the reason of the possibilities or the environment and atmosphere in which you're placed with or without choice in voluntary or involuntary from birth to now, and also consider all existential extensions of yourself including spiritual recognition.
? and compare them to social,judicial, learned events,experiences, influences and dive into there branches? somehow reflects our mechanic motivations and has an effect on who we are and what we represent. ?😲
critical evaluation on attitude change and formation those that even exist
who is considered of a father of psychology
Satyendra Reply
Immanuel Kant: Critique of Pure Reason.
id say freud but wundt continued his work. let's face it without freud there wouldn't be a psychology practices
Freud is considered as the father of Psychoanalysis not psychology
technically Freud would be the father of psychology because he discovered the id ego and super ego
Its kind of a loaded question. There are many early greats in psychology each having their own theories and views. I think it is more of a collective of ideals that make up our current view and understanding of psychology.
I agree with you Jason. there are Amazing psychologist back then that made the foundation for the field of psychology
Wilhelm Winston ryt
i agree to you Jason
is there any name for the fear of dying painfully? is it the same as thanatophobia?
Matthew Reply
hello matthew i am new
who is reinhart
Hannah Reply
hello, why are you asking me this?
hello, how are you?
hey Corey, all fine, how are you doing?
Hello everyone
Which specialization in psychology interest you? why?
hello, hannah, I'm fine thanks and how are you?
or she
hello hannah and corey
What makes a personal quality part of someone's personality?
that's a great question 🤔
what do you want to learn in psychogy?
Alyana Reply
I have been observing An incredible amount of people, who are using some kind of stimulant. I'd like to help give advice into their drug dramas. Help Repair their faulty thinking?
Learn more about how the unconscious mind Roles behavior
Rules *
where from i can learn the rules of unconscious behavior

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Source:  OpenStax, Psychology. OpenStax CNX. Feb 03, 2015 Download for free at https://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11629/1.5
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