Do BPS guidelines make a difference to the results of experiments?

The British Psychological society put many guidelines in place when experiments are taking place.  These guidelines are to protect participants and guide research with help from the code of ethics and conduct.

How different would the outcome of research and experiments be if the BPS had never been founded in 1901 and set up it’s guidelines and ethics for researchers in the future.

Milgram’s work on conformity and obedience is a very well known study.  The BPS was in it’s early years when Milgram did his experiment in   It shows the influence an authoritative figure has on a person who is taking the orders.

Some of the strengths of experimental studies of obedience are that it gives psychologists a better understanding of the human behavior.  Although Stanley Milgrams experiments of conformity and obedience came in for considerable criticism with some saying its claims are wildly overblown.  Would this experiment be allowed to take place in society today?

In 1971 Zimbardo conducted a prison experiment where he recruted volunteers to act as either prisoners or prison gaurds.  12 were  chosen to play prisoners the other 12 were chosen to play the prison gurads.  This experiment had taken place to study of the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or a prison guards and was funded by the US offfice of navel research.

However the experiment only lasted 6 days as the prisoners were becoming stressed and abused as the acting prison gaurds started to take their role much to seriously.  The experiment was initially cleared by the American Psychological Society, but was later criticized for being unethical.  This research would not be allowed to be carried out today as it would violate the ethics code of both America and UK.

These results from these studies show that YES the BPS guidelines DO make a differnece to the results of experiments.

Experiments have been changed or not even happened in the past as they were seen as unethical.  Some experiments and research has not been allowed to take place which means we will never be able to find out the answers to some questions.  FOr example if we were to remake Milgram’s experiment today to see if authority has changed in society over the past few years.  We will never know the answer as it would be classed as unethical to conduct this study again.


8 thoughts on “Do BPS guidelines make a difference to the results of experiments?

  1. evs26 says:

    Yes i agree that due to the introduction of the BPS’s ethical guidelines, studies that may give us a great insight into areas of psychology such as obedience would not be allowed to be carried out today. However, I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing. I don’t think it is worth harming participants, both physically and physiologically, in order to carry out a study that could potentially not be entirely useful to furthering knowledge. Isn’t the main aim of psychological research to further theories or form new ones in order to help people (i.e. the production of drugs to help those with schizophrenia) so isnt it slightly contradicting the aim of psychology to harm people in the process?

  2. An interesting blog and you cite some good examples of studies that have deeply affected the way in which current ethical guidelines are put in place to protect the participants of an experiment; I believe these guidelines are needed to protect people and the field from unscrupulous and unethical behaviour, yes there are studies which have been rejected as they do not protect the participants from harm sufficiently, but if the experiment is important enough then one would hope that such researchers would examine its design again and come up with a way of conducting it in such a way as to still get the results and not bring harm to those participating.

    Several blogs, and comments (including my own) have stated that Milgram’s experiment would not be allowed to be carried out today, while others have argued that the ‘white lab coat’ effect is so diminished in modern society that the experiment would not work. In fact a replication of Milgram’s study has been undertaken recently – in 2007 (with full approval from the ethics board) and the results are surprisingly similar, it’s a fascinating paper and well worth a read. Check it out here:

  3. oops sorry that comment has a typo in it; the replication was done in 2006, not 2007.

  4. I agree completely with the fact that results of experiments would be entirely different without the ethical guidelines.
    I am torn between two ways with this dilema, as for one i feel that the guidelines should at least become more lenient as they are infact stopping scientific progression occuring. This is shown through the fact that Milgram, Hofling, Zimbardo, Bandura etc all conducted studies in which were critised for being unethical, however each and every one of them have provided us with astonishing information in which have changed peoples perspectives.
    On the other hand, should we deliberitly harm participant just to gain some information? As well as this, the results gained would have to be replicated in order for the results to become reliable and generalisable. So have far would people be willing to go in order to further progress into their feild of research.
    I feel there needs to be a fine line betwee being ethical and not. Perhaps the guidelines should cut down on simple factors such as deception- as long as the participants are debreifed at the end. Simple things in which will not harm the participants would be fine, but if the research would harm them in the long term this is when firm guidelines must be put into place.

  5. xXx Tamara xXx says:

    I agree with you on your blog that the BPS does make a difference however, I do think that there will always be instances where scientists attempt to challenge or push the boundaries, with prior detailed knowledge of the guidlines. However, in the example you used in the study carried out by Zimbardo in 1971, it is evident that eventhough the BPS were able to ban the experiment; it was only enforced after it[the experiment] was carried out. So in effect it cannot be said that the BPS “protects participants and guide research”, if it only prevents further experimentation but still allows that first initial study to be carried out. However, this has drastically changed over the years, as you stated in your last paragraph. But like the law, scientists, depsite how profound and knowledgable one might be, have the responsibilty to adhere strictly to the guidlines but may choose to test these. And how strange that the public have so much trust in researchers, though the BPS would not have been put in place if there were instances where people were safe. Eventhough the BPS is there, there will always be a risk as research involes a journey of finding solutions, where along the way there will always be obstacles and unfortunate events.

  6. meiningera says:

    I agree, the guidelines that have been laid down do mean that vital, influential research carried out before the guidelines were set would not have been carried out and we may never have understood the things we now know. I think the work carried out by Milgram, Pavlov and Watson, to name a few, is massively significant and Psychologists use those research findings to base other work upon, however, I also feel that as our world changes so should our work ethics. I feel that Psychology is a subject that should pride itself on knowing that it cares deeply about participants and Psychological or Physical harm that they may gain. Some may disagree and feel that if the guidelines were not so strong we may move forward a lot faster, but I feel that we should stick with the use of these guidelines and remember to always put the participant before the results.

  7. One thing that we need to consider when thinking about ethics, is that when going forward with a decision as to whether or not a study is seen as too unethical to go forward or not. The psychologist conducting the study has the opportunity to argue his case against the ethics board. And so, if he/she can prove that his study will progress the insights of psychology enough, then the ethics board will be more lenient into what can or cannot be done.
    Evs26 raises an interesting point with the idea that the aim of psychology is to aid people and so it would be contradictory to harm others in psychology. However, this point is up for debate, at what points do the ends no longer justify the means. If one person needed to die, for another hundred to live, is it then ethical to kill the one. It creates a dilemma as to whether or not the ends can ever justify the means. It would be a topic that would require a blog post all to itself.

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