Ethics in psychological research

A very common question that is asked is to ‘Discuss ethical considerations with research into….’ A very common, but incorrect, way to answer this is to think of the most unethical study you can, and blast away at it! Instead, re-read the question, which is asking about ethical considerations, in other words ‘What do researchers need to consider when planning to research this topic?

Organisations such as the British Psychological Society and the American Psychological Association issue ethical guidelines as a set of principles designed to help researchers be confident that their research has been conducted with integrity, and with the protection and dignity of their participants at the forefront of their research design. Such guidelines include:

Informed consent

Confidentiality of data/information

Anonymity of participants

Causing no psychological or physical harm to participants

Allowing withdrawal of self and data at any time in the process

Supplying a full debriefing after the procedure

Let us take the example of HM: many people like to think of this as a prime example of research that had an issue with informed consent. Surely poor HM, with his severely damaged memory was incapable of consenting to psychological research, be it the cognitive interviews of Brenda Milner (the surgeon’s graduate student); the MRI scans of Suzanne Corkin (Milner’s graduate student); or even the post-mortem freezing and slicing of his brain by  Jacopo Annese, director of the Brain Observatory in San Diego?

While it is true that HM could not give informed consent, his mother gave consent for him, until in 1974 his mother and he moved in with Lillian Herrick, whose first husband was related to HM’s mother. Mrs. Herrick is described as caring for HM until 1980, when she was diagnosed with advanced cancer, and HM was admitted to a nursing home founded by her brother.

In 1991, the Probate Court in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, appointed Mrs. Herrick’s son, Tom Mooney, as HM’s conservator (person able to give consent). This family took an active interest in helping HM and his mother, and was able to help place him in the nursing home that took care of him. It looks as if for 11-12 years, there was no proper informed consent, and in the book written by the surgeon’s grandson recently, there are some controversial points made about this.

So, any discussion of informed consent has to be nuanced: guardians do have the right to give consent, and guardians, when they are not parents or close relatives, are appointed by the courts.

His anonymity was preserved throughout his life, with his name only revealed in the New York Times obituary after his death in 2008 at the age of 82. The writings of Milner and Corkin give us a picture of a man who was treated with respect and whose intelligence remained intact after his anterograde memory was destroyed.

It is impossible to know if any psychological harm was caused to HM during the extensive interviews and scanning, as he wouldn’t have been able to remember them a few moments after they had occurred. Though as he was cared for by people who seemed to have liked and respected him, it is to be hoped that he suffered no harm.

This is the sort of approach that needs to be taken. It is also relevant for the brain scanning and interviewing of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or those who are too young to give consent for themselves.

When answering a question on ethical considerations, choose two and discuss them in detail, with reference to a relevant study – and it can be an ethical study, as all you need to do is discuss how the researchers planned the study and conducted it, right up to publishing findings, in order to preserve the integrity and anonymity of the participants.

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