Ethics – The Science of Morals, Rules and Behaviour


ethicsEthical boards are in place to evaluate the ethical feasibility of a study by weighing the possible negative effects against the possible positive effects of the research project (Barret, 2006). When designing your research project, it could be that you need to apply for ethical approval. This is a challenging task as there are strict guidelines to abide to when drawing up a proposal. This is where your supervisor can help – with their experience, they have a clear idea of what would be accepted for someone applying for ethical approval for an undergraduate or master study. There is a great importance to abiding by ethics, in research and in practice.The importance lies in the fact that care is taken for the participant, researcher and wider society. It creates a filter for good standard of research with as minimal harm being done as possible.

The British Psychology Society (BPS) and the American Psychology Association (APA) have created a canon of ethical principles and guidelines in research and also in practice. These guidelines are important to keep in mind especially when you are writing up your ethics application as it would avoid any unnecessary rejections or amendments. Here I shall mention some ethical principles drawn out by the APA (2010) that could help you plan your research.

1. Protecting your participants from physical or psychological harm

Any negative effects must be minimised by asking about possible vulnerabilities (such as pre-existing medical conditions), informing them about the procedures to be used in as much detail as possible and how the participant may contact the research if they do feel that any stress or harm has been caused. It is the duty of the researcher to correct the consequences of any harmful aspects of the research, or, if unavoidable, inform the participant in detail on what time occur. The other ethical principles for research stem from this fundamental one of safeguarding the participants from possible harm.

2. Gaining informed consent

The researcher must inform the participant of all aspects of the research they are participating in, before the procedure begins. This includes the purpose, duration of interview or procedure, any foreseeable consequences or risks that may influence their decision to participate in the study, their right to withdraw from the study at any point (and what would happen to any data that was collected before their withdrawal), prospective benefits that they may take from the research, confidentiality, incentives and the researchers’ contact details (for any questions they may have with regards to the study). It begins to get tricky when children are involved (hence why a lot of research committees for undergraduate studies tend to prefer an older population). If you intend to test/interview children directly then there are many more directions and precautions that need to be followed. Firstly, consent from their caregiver and any professionals that are involved (for example if the population of children is taken from a psychology clinic). They would need to understand fully the purpose and outcomes of the study. As you would allow the adult to withdraw from the study, it is the right of the caregiver/professional or the child themselves to cease participation from the study if they feel that it is overwhelming or harm is being done.

3. Privacy

It is one of the rights of the participant to expect that the data collected from the research would remain confidential and the participant remain anonymous in the reporting of the results in a way that they would not be identifiable by others. If this cannot be guaranteed than the participant must be informed beforehand.

Beyond that, privacy is also of importance when informed consent is not retrieved from the participants beforehand. This being said, it is only ethical to conduct observational research in this manner if the data is gathered from places in which the participants can expect to be observed by strangers.


Milgram’s famous study on obedience – a classic example for use of deception

4. The controversial use of deception

Informing the participants of the deception used in the study may alter the results. The BPS acknowledges this and clearly states that deception becomes unethical if the information that is hidden from the participant may cause the participant to object or be uneasy after debriefing. However, it is recommended that deception is to be avoided wherever possible.

5. Debriefing

Debriefing follows the procedures, interview or investigations where further information and potential deception is uncovered. Ideally, the researcher takes this time to gather feedback on the participants’ experience with the procedure so that any adverse effects may be monitored. This should be done at the earliest possible point, if possible, before the participant leaves the research setting. This also applies to children. The researcher must ensure that the child fully understands why s/he has been there. If experiments were conducted, debriefing is important to ensure that they are once again in touch with reality, knowing that the experiment was not real.

Therefore, as psychology students, and (future) researchers, always remember that the aim of research is not just to get another publication under ones name. It is about extending the existing pool of psychological research and creating a better (or new) understanding of the chosen topic in which the society can benefit from.


American Psychological Association (2010). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. Retrieved from

Barrett, M. (2006). Practical and ethical issues in planning research. In G. Breakwell, S. Hammond, C. Fife-Schaw & J. A. Smith (Eds.), Research Methods in Psychology (3rd ed.) (pp. 24-48). London: Sage.

McLeod, S. A. (2007). Psychology Research Ethics. Retrieved from

About the author

Elena Felice Currently Elena is reading for an MA in Gestalt Psychotherapy and works as a Psychology Assistant at the Maltese general Hospital. Her main areas are in Perinatal Mental Health and Staff Support. Her research interests include Mental Health, Perinatal Psychology, Developmental Psychology and Health Psychology amongst others.