Consider the following real and hypothetical research situations. What is the ethical component in each example? How do you feel about it? Do you think the procedures described are ultimately acceptable or unacceptable? You might find discussing some of these situations with classmates useful.
A. A psychology instructor asks students in an introductory psychology class to complete questionnaires that the instructor will analyze and use in preparing a journal article for publication.
B. After a field study of deviant behavior during a riot, law enforcement officials demand that the researcher identify those people who were observed looting. Rather than risk arrest as an accomplice after the fact, the researcher complies.
C. After completing the final draft of a book reporting a research project, the researcher- author discovers that 25 of the 2,000 survey interviews were falsified by interviewers. To protect the bulk of the research, the author leaves out this information and publishes the book.
D. Researchers obtain a list of right-wing radicals they wish to study. They contact the radicals with the explanation that each has been selected “at random” from among the general population to take a sampling of “public opinion.”
E. A college instructor, who wants to test the effect of unfair berating, administers an hour exam to both sections of a specific course. The overall performance of the two sections is essentially the same. The grades of one section are artificially lowered, however, and the instructor berates the students for performing so badly. The instructor then administers the same final exam to both sections and discovers that the performance of the unfairly berated section is worse. The hypothesis is confirmed, and the research report is published.
F. In a study of sexual behavior, the investigator wants to overcome subjects’ reluctance to report what they might regard as shameful behavior. To get past their reluctance, subjects are asked, “Everyone masturbates now and then; about how much do you masturbate?”
G. A researcher studying dorm life on campus discovers that 60 percent of the residents regularly violate restrictions on alcohol consumption. Publication of this finding would probably create a furor in the campus community. Because no extensive analysis of alcohol use is planned, the researcher decides to keep this finding quiet.
H. To test the extent to which people may try to save face by expressing attitudes on matters they are wholly uninformed about, the researcher asks for their attitudes regarding a fictitious issue.
I. A research questionnaire is circulated among students as part of their university registration packet. Although students are not told they must complete the questionnaire, the hope is that they will believe they must— thus ensuring a higher completion rate.
J. A researcher pretends to join a radical political group in order to study it and is successfully accepted as a member of the inner planning circle. What should the researcher do if the group makes plans for the following?
• A peaceful, though illegal, demonstration
• The bombing of a public building during a time it is sure to be unoccupied
• The assassination of a public official
A. The instructor is using a convenience sample, and his/her power over the students is to imply that they must fill out his survey. This is not an appropriate way to gather data for publication.
B. The researcher does not have a therapist-client relationship to protect, so it is legal to comply with the demands of the police. The police are within their rights to collect this information in order to enforce the law.
C. If the author determines that all the other interviews were not falsified, and leaves out the findings of those 25, it would be permissible to publish, as long as the difficulty is mentioned somewhere in the book along with the results.
D. Research cannot be done by deceiving the subjects. This is an ethical violation.
E. The professor may not lie to subjects in order to complete an experiment, and grades should not be falsely lowered to produce the desired effect.
F. Questions written in a leading manner, such as this one, will produce flawed results. This is not acceptable.
G. Since alcohol consumption is dangerous in many ways, the researcher is obligated to publish the findings so that the college may address this trend to reduce the risks faced by students.
H. This study is focused on saving face, but sets up a situation in which people will lose face when the deception is revealed. This is not acceptable as subjects should not be misled.
I. There is a power differential between students and administration, so many students will infer that they must complete the survey. This is not overt deceit, but taking advantage of behavior tendencies related to students’ perceived obligations. As long as no one is punished for not filling out the survey, and no one is rewarded, it is permissible.
J. An official who infiltrates a group should not take part in illegal activity, and should tip off the authorities about planned violence, if they are unable to dissuade the group from committing these crimes.
Answer and explanation:
(This question requires a subjective response, this is an example.)
A. This is not an appropriate way to gather data for publication because the instructor is using a convenience sample, and his/her power over the students to imply that they must fill out this survey. Students cannot be compelled to participate in research because this violates the ethical requirement that participation be voluntary. It also precludes the participants’ right to withdraw from research at any time for any (or no) reason.
B. The police are within their rights to collect this information in order to enforce the law, since the researcher cannot claim therapist-client privacy, it is ethical to comply with the demands of the police.
C. It would be permissible to publish, as long as the difficulty is mentioned somewhere in the book along with the results, and the author could show that all the other interviews were not falsified, nor affected the outcome of the study. Otherwise, the study must be redone.
D. It is an ethical violation to deceive subjects of a study.
E. The professor should not lower grades or berate students under false pretenses just to study their reactions. This is another example of deceiving subjects.
F. Leading questions bias results. This is not acceptable because the researcher is attempting to get people to admit they masturbate.
G. Colleges try to limit dangers faced by students, and pervasive flouting of drinking rules presents clear and present danger, therefore the researcher must publish.
H. This is not acceptable as subjects should not be misled or be made to feel shame or other psychological harm. This study is focused on saving face, but sets up a situation in which people will lose face when the deception is revealed.
I. This is not overt deceit, but taking advantage of behavior tendencies related to students’ perceived obligations because there is a power differential between students and administration, so many students will infer that they must complete the survey. As long as no one is punished for not filling out the survey, and no one is rewarded, it is permissible.
J. A researcher must not be a party to any violent or illegal activity, so he or she should try to talk the group out of the bombing and assassination, or report them to the police. Peaceful demonstrations are not threatening, and it would be okay for the researcher to take part in that.
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