Though people often conjure the image of long hypnotic sessions on Sigmund Freud’s couch when imagining psychological research, that picture isn’t the norm for modern day practice.
As research psychology has continued to evolve over the course of the last 40 years, so too have the ethical guidelines overseeing such research. Psychologists at the university level are bound by institutional review boards, peer reviews and the National Institutes of Health to validate the quality of the studies and the safety of their participants — methodology that has led to safer standards across the board.
Colleen Seifert, chair of student academic affairs in the Department of Psychology, said regulations governing experiments today allow for little damage or ethical concern. At the University and peer institutions, the majority of regulatory work of psychological studies is done at the departmental level by institutional review boards. The boards review proposals for experiments before they’re performed, conduct random audits on researchers and handle complaints from participants against researchers or particular studies.
“It is set up solely to review experimental procedures,” Seifert said. “The board has faculty members from across the University, and they review the proposed procedures to see if they are ethical or not.”
Seifert added that the boards report to the federal government if they find evidence of legal violations that cannot be handled internally.
“The institutional review board is there to guarantee that researchers follow the ethical principles outlined by the (American Psychological Association) and federal law about how participants can be treated in research,” Seifert said.
Christine Moretto Wishnoff, health program specialist at the National Institutes of Health, said the “Common Rule” — a portion of the federal regulation code on human research subjects within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — is the main federal law overseeing experimentation. The rule also mandated the establishment of institutional review boards to better protect volunteers in psychological experiments.
“The charge of the institutional review board is to assess that risk to subjects have been minimized and that risks are reasonable in relation to anticipated benefit,” Wishnoff said.
The violations NIH deal with are usually not very serious, Wishnoff said. Lapses in the required yearly reviews are the most common, but she said she has never seen a study that would seriously imperil subjects brought to her office.
She added that a key criterion for the funding that NIH provides for psychological research is based on the ethical considerations of the proposed experiment.
“Typically when we look at studies that would result in duress, we would make sure there is an evaluation of whatever the research would be,” Wishnoff said. “Issues of subject protection and concerns are flagged at that point (of the evaluation). A grant cannot be paid until those concerns are addressed.”
Both Wishnoff and Seifert agreed that the use of deception and other misleading techniques will continue to be necessary in psychological experiments in order to obtain honest results from participants.
“The nature of science has somewhat changed,” Wishnoff said. “There will always be studies that employ some level of deception or disclosing only certain aspects of a study design.”
Edward O’Brien, a Rackham student who has conducted psychological research in the past, said potential ethical dilemmas concerning psychological experiments were clearly presented to him, even during his undergraduate years at St. Joseph’s University. Before he could conduct experiments at the undergraduate level, O’Brien said he had to take a summer course about experimental ethics, and he was also required to complete an online course at the University of Michigan before he was allowed to work with human subjects.
O’Brien said he believes the greatest ethical concerns facing psychological research today are not harm to the participant, but rather the inadvertent revelation of a participant’s confidential information or results from a test.
“Having personal information like a cell phone number or an e-mail address that the participant didn’t agree to give (are more of a concern), as compared to the old days like the ‘shocking experiment’ (application of electric shocks to participants) that would physically harm the participant (by giving them electric shocks),” O’Brien said.
O’Brien added that institutional review boards emerged informally at the Nuremburg trials after World War II with the revelation of Nazi experiments. Wishnoff said these were formalized when the Common Rule became law in 1991.
Beyond research psychology, professional psychological care also receives strictly enforced regulation. The Michigan Board of Psychology — whose members are appointed by the governor — regulates psychological treatment and practices and oversees professional licensing.
Robert Hack, a limited license psychologist and member of the Michigan Board of Psychology, said the board doesn’t usually deal with research issues, but instead focuses on complaints against professionals in the practice. If there are reported violations against psychologists, the complaint often undergoes a process similar to that of an institutional review board.
“(The complaint) goes to the office in Lansing which asks us to investigate and (also) the assistant attorney general’s office to investigate violations,” Hack said. “It’s up to interpretation sometimes. Some of it’s relevant, but sometimes it’s just a therapist not really doing what (the patient) wants them to do.”
LSA freshman Tonia Ballantyne said she was required to participate in basic psychology experiments for her Psychology 111 class. Though some of the experiments were handled professionally, she said she was correctly debriefed after, which she said she felt was an ethical concern.
“(The researchers) had manipulated certain variables, but they never said what they were on the debriefing form,” Ballantyne said. “I thought that was very contradictory to what we had learned in class.”
The researchers were flustered when they encountered a glitch in their computer system, and even admitted that their debriefing form didn’t say anything about what the experiment addressed, Ballantyne said.
“The professionalism was down the drain at that point.”