• Question: Do you think the non-ethical experiments conducted in the past that created foundations for modern psychology were worth it, or would you say preventing harm on participants was a greater priority?

    Asked by anon-282402 on 27 Mar 2021.
    • Photo: Lisa Grünwald

      Lisa Grünwald answered on 8 Mar 2021:

      Hi EllieM, That’s a brilliant question. I think it depends on what you mean by “worth it” – if we are thinking about the findings from those research studies, then I’d like to think that for a lot of them we could have done them differently (and within an ethical framework!) and still gotten the same answers – ethics are super important and there will always be ways to minimise risk.
      It has definitely taught us about the importance of ethics though, so maybe this is something we gained from it.

      I would also say that for some research studies (not all!), researchers did think studies were in the best interest for their participants, based on the knowledge available at the time. Schizophrenia used to be treated with insulin therapy – meaning inducing an insulin coma in the hope that it would make people feel better – and some studies found that it would make people feel better (although those findings are debatable now, and maybe even then).
      Even now, ECT is a treatment for schizophrenia – meaning sending an electric current through the brain. More recent research hasn’t found any major benefits, but lots of negatives for people who have gone through this. It is possible that in a few years we also consider this treatment unethical!

    • Photo: Alex Baxendale

      Alex Baxendale answered on 8 Mar 2021:

      Hello! It is ALWAYS a priority to prevent harm for patients, if we our work has produced a negative effect for even one person then the results are meaningless. Everything we can do can be done ethically, it might be more expensive or it might take more time to do but it can be done! There was an experiment by a researcher called Milgram who did an experiment were he tricked innocent people to give an electric shock to a person, and if they refused to they were told that they had to do it. Fortunately the person receiving a shock was an actor who was completely fine, but the participants had no idea! From this experiment 3 participants were so stressed out and upset that they had seizures – Milgram’s response? ‘Well the symptoms were only short term’. Under no situation could this kind of situation be seen as reasonable – we should never be putting people in these situations! To make sure nobody gets tempted to do this in the future the scientific community will refuse to use any modern works that break ethics.

    • Photo: Ellen Smith

      Ellen Smith answered on 8 Mar 2021:

      Such a great question! When you think of some of the typically ‘famous’ experiments like Zimbardo’s prison experiment and Milgram’s work that Alex mentioned – it’s hard to believe that it was allowed to happen. We’ve moved forwards so much in terms of ethical guidelines since they were conducted and whilst the findings were super interesting and still taught today, I’m certain that the same/similar findings could have been observed from more ethically sound research projects.

    • Photo: anon

      anon answered on 8 Mar 2021:

      Hi Ellie M,
      I agree completely with the psychologists above.
      But I would like to add that most of these experiments were started with no idea the inhumane and catastrophic effects would be on harm to participants. For example, in Milgram’s’ shock experiment – they predicted only 1% of the population would go as far as the lethal shock – whereas something like 65% did! They didn’t expect this and therefore they couldn’t have foreseen the dire consequences.
      And so too goes for Zimbardo’s prison study – he and his colleagues couldn’t have predicted how awful things would get for the ‘prisoners’.
      So to answer your question in a roundabout way – yes but… what we set out to be as ethical and non-psychological harming as possible, sometimes we might surprise ourselves with the findings in ways we never expected or could predict.

    • Photo: Dennis Relojo-Howell

      Dennis Relojo-Howell answered on 9 Mar 2021:

      Hi EllieM. My fellow scientists have already provided brilliant answers. So I won’t rehash their answers anymore. What I would like to share though is that there are still problematic areas when it comes to conducting experiments. In my area of research (resilience), there are researchers who use mice and monkeys to study how stressors affect these animals. This is being carried out to provide models that can also enhance the validity and reproducibility of biomedical models of resilience. Is it worth it to subject these animals to physical and psychological harms? I am not so sure.

    • Photo: Harry Piper

      Harry Piper answered on 9 Mar 2021:

      This a fantastic question! Everyone has already given brilliant answers too but what I would say that sometimes ethics can be a bit of a gray area! Looking back at some of the classic studies (e.g. Milgram and Zimbardo), we can definitely pick out ethical challenges in it! However, in another 20 years time, perhaps some of today’s experiments that we thought were perfectly ethical will also be challenged! Ethics hasn’t got one single answer and there are sure to be many different ways of looking at things (think trolley problem). I can’t answer whether the experiments were worth it, but one thing we can say is that they have helped us learn to be more ethical in experiments (but again, we can’t say if this is worth it)

    • Photo: Lisa Orchard

      Lisa Orchard answered on 9 Mar 2021:

      Hi Ellie. That’s such an interesting question. I would argue that preventing participant harm should be a greater priority. I would like to think that psychology has learned, and will continue to learn from, our mistakes. There are always alternative ways to find out knowledge.