What Makes Psychology Research Ethical?

ethics in research psychology

Posted November 2019 by Sean Jackson, B.A. Social Studies Education, B.S.I.T.; M.S. Counseling; 6 updates since. Reading time: 7 min. Reading level: Grade 9+. Questions on psychology research ethics? Email Toni at: editor@online-psychology-degrees.org.

Whether psychological research is conducted with animals or human participants, it must be done in a manner that follows rules of conduct that protect the participants from harm.

But what makes psychology research ethical goes well beyond not bringing physical or emotional harm to a research subject.

Instead, ethical guidelines for research are quite broad, covering everything from using inducements to entice people to participate in studies to using deception as a research tool – and much more.

Today’s guidelines arose, in part, as a reaction to classic psychological research (i.e., Milgram’s obedience study; Zimbardo’s prison experiment) that caused significant emotional harm to some participants.

In this guide, we’ll explore some of the most important ethical guidelines psychology requires of researchers to ensure their conduct is ethical and that participants are protected.

Who Outlines Ethical Standards?

In the United States, the American Psychological Association is the governing body when it comes to ethical guidelines for research in psychology.

The APA Code of Ethics was first published in 1953 and has been revised over the years to reflect current standards of ethical practice.

The Code of Ethics has seen nine revisions, the last one coming in 2010.

There is an entire section of the Code of Ethics that deals specifically with research and publication. It is this portion of the document that offers the most specific guidance for psychologists in terms of conducting ethical psychological research.

Ethical Guidelines for Research

Section 8 of the APA Code of Ethics offers several constructs for undertaking research that ensures psychologists ethically conduct themselves.

There are a variety of components to the guidelines, the most critical of which are outlined below.

One of the most important ethical principles in research with human participants is the process of obtaining informed consent.

Obtaining informed consent is a process by which psychologists explain to research participants what the research is about and then ask for their permission (or consent) to participate. This is to ensure that research participants are involved in the study voluntarily and have not been coerced.

Getting informed consent does not mean that researchers have to offer every single detail of the research in question. Instead, the Code of Ethics stipulates that they explain:

  • The purpose of the research
  • The expected duration of the study
  • The procedures used in the study.

Likewise, psychologists must let potential subjects know that they can decline to participate, and if they agree to participate, they are free to withdraw at any time. A discussion of potential consequences of declining or withdrawing must be held as well.

Psychologists are asked to provide subjects with details regarding reasonably foreseeable factors that might influence their willingness to participate in the study, such as the potential for discomfort.

The process of informed consent also includes an overview of the potential research benefits, the limits of confidentiality, and the identification of any incentives for participating. Subjects are also provided the contact information for the persons responsible for the research should questions arise once their participation is over.

However, there are certain situations in which psychologists can forego informed consent.

First, informed consent is not required in situations where laws, institutional regulations, or other forms of oversight permit it.

Second, informed consent is not required when there is a reasonable assumption that the research will not cause distress or harm.

For example, research in which observing subjects in their natural environment (i.e., students in a classroom) would not require informed consent because the subjects simply go about their normal day and it is reasonable to assume that the presence of researchers in the classroom would not cause undue stress or harm to the students. 

Use of Deception

Sometimes, researchers might use deception in their research when it is deemed justified to do so to achieve potential scientific, educational, or applied value that would not otherwise be possible.

Examples of deception might include purposefully misleading a study participant (i.e., providing them with deceptive instructions), the use of confederates (i.e., a research assistant that poses as a study subject), or simply omitting details about the study.

The use of deception is strictly governed. For example, to protect the well-being of research subjects, deception cannot be used in research in which physical pain or emotional distress could result from participation in the study.

Furthermore, researchers must explain to subjects why deception was used as soon as possible, preferably at the end of the subjects’ participation in the research.

This debrief stage is another important component of ensuring that psychological research is ethical.

The debrief not only includes a discussion of any deceptive tactics that are used but also allows participants to learn appropriate information about the study, such as the results and conclusions of the research.

Another aspect of the debrief that aligns with ethical practice is taking steps to correct misconceptions about the research. That is, if the researcher becomes aware the participant has misunderstood something, the debrief is the time to correct those misconceptions.

The debrief phase isn’t just for dispensing with information, but is instead about helping subjects come to a better understanding of what just happened so they can leave the study in a frame of mind that is similar to when they began their participation.

Use of Inducements

One way that psychological researchers entice people to participate in studies is to offer them some sort of inducement.

Inducements can run the gamut from financial compensation to offering services in return, such as psychotherapy.

Whatever inducements are used, the APA Code of Ethics stipulates that they cannot be excessive or inappropriate. Therefore, offering $500 for participating in a study in which the subject is asked to answer a 10-part questionnaire would be considered excessive. Likewise, offering therapeutic services without explaining the risks, obligations, and limitations of the service would be inappropriate.

Again, these precautionary measures are taken to ensure the safety of the research subject, but they are also designed to ensure that researchers conduct themselves in a manner that is consistent with APA ethical guidelines for research.

Humane Care of Animals

Animal research is an integral component of psychological study, but necessitates that animals are treated humanely to reduce harm and ensure their comfort.

Animals must be cared for in a manner that is compliant with laws and regulations, and researchers must have training in methods for caring for animal subjects. Furthermore, research assistants must be supervised as they interact with animals and must be trained in the care, maintenance, and handling of the animals being used for research.

If surgical procedures will be conducted, the animal must be anesthetized and appropriate measures must be taken to avoid infection, minimize pain, reduce the chance of illness, and minimize stress.

Procedures that inflict pain or stress on an animal are permitted, but only in situations in which there is no alternative procedure available and when the research goals are justified by the potential value of what is learned by inflicting pain.

If an animal’s life needs to be terminated, researchers must act quickly to minimize the animal’s pain and suffering.


The ethical guidelines for research are broader and deeper than what is outlined above. Yet, the procedures reviewed here are among the most important ethical principles by which psychologists must abide.

As noted in the introduction, the APA has developed standards for conducting research to protect human and animal participants and to provide researchers with detailed guidelines for conduct.

Doing so helps ensure that research is conducted in a way that minimizes the discomfort, pain, and distress experienced by research subjects while maximizing the value of what is learned as a result of the study.

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