Ethics in Psychological Research

Different researches have been conducted in the various fields over a considerable period of time now. Researchers employ varying methods while carrying out their investigations. Psychological researchers, in particular, are interested in understanding human beings and hence most of their investigations involve direct contact with human beings.

Many countries, especially the United States of America and Britain have developed psychological research guidelines which must be strictly adhered to. Researchers in the field of psychology are expected to meet the highest ethical considerations (Cox, 2002). The ethical standards are prescribed by recognized psychological associations and societies.

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The research paper seeks to discuss the use of physical traces as one of the ethical considerations in any psychological research. The concept of ethics as well as risk/benefit ratio will be discussed. The effect of physical traces on conducting psychological research will also be evaluated.

The ethical concerns involving human participants have over the last 50 years received a lot of attention from concerned quarters. Notably, all psychological researches should be conducted and guided by the highest ethical standards. Ethics in research can be defined as the guiding principles that govern the entire research process especially those involving human subjects (Flanagan & Banyard, 2005).

According to the American Psychological Association, before any research is conducted, the researcher must be ethical by considering the participants and how they will be affected either directly or indirectly by the research process. The researcher should ensure the preservation of the physical and psychological dignity of the participants (Cox, 2002).

Moreover, the research must not interfere with the participants’ health, safety, and general well being. This process should be done continually as the research proceeds through the consideration and evaluation of the risk/benefit ratio.

Apart from the participants’ safety concerns, receiving informed consent from the subjects is also another key ethical issue in psychological research with human beings as participants. Usually, it is recommended that the consent be obtained in written form but in some cases, oral consents can be considered (Flanagan & Banyard, 2005). A valid consent is made after the participant is fully aware of the involved risks and benefits.

In a nut shell, the American Psychological Association provides that a valid informed consent should have a number of components; the first one is disclosure where the participant must be fully aware of the nature and objectives of the entire research. Secondly, the subject must be able to understand what has been explained about the research. This implies that the language of the consent form must be as clear as possible.

The third component is the participants’ voluntary acceptance to give consent. The subjects ought not to be forced to participate or be lured by false promise of benefits. Competence of the participant is the fourth component. The subject should be physically and psychological fit to give consent and in case he or she cannot, then the appropriate person associated with the subject has to give consent (Cox, 2002). This is common especially if the outcome is for the benefit of the participant.

Another important ethical consideration is the privacy of the research information as well as how confidentiality will be upheld by the investigator (Flanagan & Banyard, 2005). The investigator will be expected to protect information and findings of the research from any unauthorized exposure. The researcher should also specify how the participants will be dealt with incase of desirable/undesirable findings from the research. Furthermore, the investigator should be specific on how cases of injury will be handled. A clear procedure of handling adverse incidents should be outlined, for instance on how the arising costs will be met.

Psychological research institutions involving human participants have received increased focus from regulatory boards. This has been due to the risks and benefits that are associated with human subjects in the researches. The concept of risk/benefit ratio has therefore been formulated to monitor and ensure the safety of research participants. Many institutions, especially in America have developed Institutional Review Boards for the Protection of Human Subjects (IRB’s) in order to approve and monitor all investigations dealing with human subjects (Cox, 2002).

Before the participants give consent, they have to be informed of the nature and the objectives of the research. They should be informed of the expected benefits of the research findings, either directly to the subject or how the outcome will benefit the society (Cox, 2002). Apart from the benefits, the subjects have the right to know the risks related to their participation in the research. These risks could include; stress resulting from worry and doubt and other related discomforts depending on the participation techniques (Flanagan & Banyard, 2005). The researcher should state clearly how confidentiality would be upheld as well as keeping the subjects anonymous in order to avoid any risk/discomfort arising from publicity. The investigator should also outline how the subject will be treated and compensated just in case of any injury emanating from participation in the research. Clear procedures of how the risks will be minimized should also be provided. The final decision by the subject to give consent must therefore be made after a careful evaluation of the risk/benefit ratio. In cases where the risks seem to be more than the benefits, then the subject may opt to withdraw (Cox, 2002).

There are a number of ways in which ethical issues can be addressed with an aim of minimizing the risks of direct human participation. One of the classical issues in ethics and psychological research is physical traces. Physical traces refer to the leftovers, indicators, and products of past behavior or activity (Montello & Sutton, 2006).

It relies on the fact that any behavior or interaction, especially by human beings leaves physical remains. This method of investigation is common among police officers seeking to establish the traces of criminal activity. Psychological researchers also employ this method in their studies of human behavior.

There are two major categories of physical traces; use traces and products. Use traces are what the label implies. This refers to the physical trace or evidence that results from the use or lack of use of a given item. According to Montello and Sutton (2006), physical traces provide a good source of information for identifying various human behaviors by implication.

The first category which is use traces results from what people do to their environment; the byproduct of use. Bare spots on a yard or across buildings may indicate the degree of human interaction activities (Montello & Sutton, 2006). Secondly, people may modify their environment to make it more useful.

This is also known as adaptation for use. Researchers have found out that physical traces arise from two major activities: it can be from accretion which refers to the continued build-up of traces from deposition or addition. The second activity is that of deletion which refers to the removal, erasure, or the general wearing away of material due to human activity. It is also known as erosion.

All these activities can either be intentional or unintentional but are good sources for researchers who would want to investigate human behavior indirectly. This method of research has impacted significantly on psychological researchers since they have minimized the risks of dealing directly with human participants.

This is because the use of physical traces is unobtrusive measure. Psychologists have been able to meet their ethical obligations to understand and improve individual as well as societal conditions (Flanagan & Banyard, 2005). The data collected from such method are valid because the people leaving the traces are unaware of the investigators analysis.

The paper has discussed the concept of ethics in psychological research as well as that of risk/benefit ratio. It has elaborated on the use of physical traces by psychological researchers and how it helps in meeting the ethical considerations. It can be conclude that since psychological research involves human participants, efforts need to be made to identify more reliable ways of handling them without compromising the guidelines for ethical considerations.


Cox, E. (2002). As psychology for Aqa specification B. Oxford University Press

Flanagan, C. & Banyard, P. (2005). Ethical issues and guidelines in psychology. Routledge

Montello, D. R. & Sutton, P. C. (2006). An introduction to scientific methods of research. SAGE


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