Module 2: Studying Gender Using the Scientific Method
In Module 2 we will address the fact that psychology is the scientific study of behavior and mental processes. We will do this by examining the steps of the scientific method and describing the five major designs used in psychological research. We will also differentiate between reliability and validity and their importance for measurement. Psychology has very clear ethical standards and procedures for scientific research. We will discuss these but also why they are needed. The content of this module relates to all areas of psychology, but we will also point out some methods used in the study of gender that may not be used in other subfields as frequently or at all.
- 2.1. The Scientific Method
- 2.2. Research Designs Used in the Study of Gender Issues
- 2.3. Reliability and Validity
- 2.4. Research Ethics
Module Learning Outcomes
- Clarify what it means for psychology to be scientific by examining the steps of the scientific method and the three cardinal features of science.
- Outline the five main research methods used in psychology and clarify how they are utilized in social psychology.
- Differentiate and explain the concepts of reliability and validity.
- Describe key features of research ethics.
2.1. The Scientific Method
Section Learning Objectives
- Define scientific method.
- Outline and describe the steps of the scientific method, defining all key terms.
- Identify and clarify the importance of the three cardinal features of science.
In Module 1, we learned that psychology was the scientific study of behavior and mental processes. We will spend quite a lot of time on the behavior and mental processes part, but before we proceed, it is prudent to elaborate more on what makes psychology scientific. In fact, it is safe to say that most people not within our discipline or a sister science, would be surprised to learn that psychology utilizes the scientific method at all.
So what is the scientific method? Simply, the scientific method is a systematic method for gathering knowledge about the world around us. The key word here is that it is systematic meaning there is a set way to use it. What is that way? Well, depending on what source you look at it can include a varying number of steps. For our purposes, the following will be used:
Table 2.1: The Steps of the Scientific Method
|0||Ask questions and be willing to wonder.||To study the world around us you have to wonder about it. This inquisitive nature is the hallmark of critical thinking, or our ability to assess claims made by others and make objective judgments that are independent of emotion and anecdote and based on hard evidence and required to be a scientist. We might wonder if men engaged in a heterosexual relationship act differently when communicating with their significant other on a date than with close male friends while watching a football game in the Man Cave.|
|1||Generate a research question or identify a problem to investigate.||Through our wonderment about the world around us and why events occur as they do, we begin to ask questions that require further investigation to arrive at an answer. This investigation usually starts with a literature review, or when we conduct a literature search through our university library or a search engine such as Google Scholar to see what questions have been investigated already and what answers have been found, so that we can identify gaps or holes in this body of work. For instance, in relation to communication and gender, we would execute a search using those words as our parameters. Google Scholar and similar search engines would look for communication and gender in the key words authors identify when writing their abstract. The search would likely return quite a few articles at which time you would pick and choose which ones to read from the abstracts (the short summary of what the article is about; it is sort of like the description of a book found on the back cover or sometimes the inside cover of a book jacket). As you read articles you would try and figure out what has and has not been done to give your future research project direction.|
|2||Attempt to explain the phenomena we wish to study.||We now attempt to formulate an explanation of why the event occurs as it does. This systematic explanation of a phenomenon is a theory and our specific, testable prediction is the hypothesis. We will know if our theory is correct because we have formulated a hypothesis which we can now test. In the case of our example, we might develop a general theory of communication which states that individuals will alter their communication style depending on who they are speaking to and the situational context. We could hypothesize that males on a date with a female may act more formal and restrained than a male watching a football game with friends. We might even (likely in future studies) examine if this effect goes away if their girlfriend/wife enjoys watching sports too or how a man may interact with friends in other contexts than sports events. We might even examine cultural norms for such interactions. Really, the sky is the limit here and we can introduce other group dynamics and relationships to examine communication patterns in a more universal way.|
|3||Test the hypothesis.||It goes without saying that if we cannot test our hypothesis, then we cannot show whether our prediction is correct or not. Our plan of action of how we will go about testing the hypothesis is called our research design. In the planning stage, we will select the appropriate research method to answer our question/test our hypothesis. In this case we might wish to use naturalistic observation to watch heterosexual couples on a date and then groups of males watching a football game in a public place. Alternatively, we could use a survey method and ask the man’s friends and significant other to describe his behavior in a variety of situations. We might employ a case study or experimental procedure as well. More on these in the next section.|
|4||Interpret the results.||With our research study done, we now examine the data to see if the pattern we predicted exists. We need to see if a cause and effect statement can be made, assuming our method allows for this inference. The statistics we use take on two forms. First, there are descriptive statistics which provide a means of summarizing or describing data and presenting the data in a usable form. You likely have heard of the mean or average, median, and mode. Along with standard deviation and variance, these are ways to describe our data. Second, there are inferential statistics which allow for the analysis of two or more sets of numerical data to determine the statistical significance of the results. Significance is an indication of how confident we are that our results are due to our manipulation or design and not chance. Typically we set this significance at no higher than 5% due to chance.|
|5||Draw conclusions carefully.||We need to accurately interpret our results and not overstate our findings. To do this, we need to be aware of our biases and avoid emotional reasoning so that they do not cloud our judgment. How so? In our effort to stop a child from engaging in self-injurious behavior that could cause substantial harm or even death, we might overstate the success of our treatment method. In the case of our communication study, if we are a male experimenter, we may downplay or suppress unfavorable results about communication patterns of males when interacting with friends than our girlfriend/wife.|
|6||Communicate our findings to the larger scientific community.||Once we have decided on whether our hypothesis is correct or not, we need to share this information with others so that they might comment critically on our methodology, statistical analyses, and conclusions. Sharing also allows for replication or repeating the study to confirm its results. Communication is accomplished via scientific journals, conferences, or newsletters released by many of the organizations mentioned in Section 1.3.|
Science has at its root three cardinal features that we will see play out time and time again throughout this book. They are:
- Observation – In order to know about the world around us we must be able to see it firsthand. In relation to the study of gender issues, we have chosen our hypothesis to test because in the past we believe we have seen a pattern in how males interact with male friends and their female significant other and now want to test to see if it is correct. As part of our research design, we could use naturalistic observation to gather data.
- Experimentation – To be able to make causal or cause and effect statements, we must be able to isolate variables. We have to manipulate one variable and see the effect of doing so on another variable. Experimentation is a major method used by psychologists studying gender to test its hypotheses.
- Measurement – How do we know whether or not males interact differently with male friends or the female significant other? As you might expect, we would gather data through observation and counting each time a specific behavior was performed, or by using a survey and subsequently correlating variables. With either research design, we are measuring the variable called communication and though we are looking for differences within males as a group we could expand our research in the future to look for differences across genders or even other relationship types. It is important for researchers to ensure the scales that are used measure the actual variable they are interested in and they can make conclusions beyond the experimental situation. Likewise, we need to make sure the same results are obtained across raters (i.e. interrater) such as in the case of observation, or if the same person took a survey at different times (such as pre and posttest; i.e. intra-rater). More on what are called validity and reliability, respectively, in Section 2.3. These concepts are very important where measurement is concerned and help us to know that the conclusions we infer from our data are drawn from sources or techniques we can trust.
2.2. Research Designs Used in the Study of Gender Issues
Section Learning Objectives
- List the five main research methods used in psychology.
- Describe observational research, listing its advantages and disadvantages.
- Describe case study research, listing its advantages and disadvantages.
- Describe survey research, listing its advantages and disadvantages.
- Describe correlational research, listing its advantages and disadvantages.
- Describe experimental research, listing its advantages and disadvantages.
- State the utility and need for multimethod research.
Step 3 called on the scientist to test his or her hypothesis. Psychology as a discipline uses five main research designs. These include observational research, case studies, surveys, correlational designs, and experiments. Note that research can take two forms, one focused on numbers and called quantitative and the other focused on words or descriptions and called qualitative. Be advised that the latter is not readily accepted within the field of psychology which traditionally has used the quantitative approach to conduct statistical analyses for which significance could be determined. It is, or maybe has been, believed that because the qualitative approach could not be reduced to numbers for analysis, it is more subjective while the quantitative approach is more objective, an important feature/requirement for science. Fortunately, we have new computer software programs that can analyze qualitative responses for trends which adds weight to any conclusions drawn from this type of data.
2.2.1. Observational Research
In terms of naturalistic observation, the scientist studies human or animal behavior in its natural environment which could include the home, school, or a forest. The researcher counts, measures, and rates behavior in a systematic way and at times uses multiple judges to ensure accuracy in how the behavior is being measured. This is called inter-rater reliability as you will see in Section 2.3. The advantage of this method is that you witness behavior as it occurs and it is not tainted by the experimenter. The disadvantage is that it could take a long time for the behavior to occur and if the researcher is detected then this may influence the behavior of those being observed. In the case of the latter, the behavior of the observed becomes artificial.
Laboratory observation involves observing people or animals in a laboratory setting. The researcher might want to know more about parent-child interactions and so brings a mother and her child into the lab to engage in preplanned tasks such as playing with toys, eating a meal, or the mother leaving the room for a short period of time. The advantage of this method over the naturalistic method is that the experimenter can use sophisticated equipment and videotape the session to examine it at a later time. The problem is that since the subjects know the experimenter is watching them, their behavior could become artificial from the start.
184.108.40.206. Example of a psychology of gender study utilizing observation. Olino et al. (2012) indicate that a growing body of literature points to gender differences in child temperament and adult personality traits throughout life but that many of these studies rely solely on parent-report measures. Their investigation used parental-report, maternal-report, and laboratory observation. The laboratory batteries took approximately two hours and children were exposed to standardized laboratory episodes with a female experimenter. These episodes were intended to elicit individual differences in temperament traits as they relate to behavioral engagement, social behavior, and emotionality. They included Risk Room, when children explore a set of novel, ambiguous stimuli such as a black box; Stranger Approach or when the child is left alone in the room briefly and a male research accomplice enters the room and speaks to the child; Pop-up Snakes or when the child and experimenter surprise the child’s mother with a can of potato chips that contain coiled snakes, and Painting a Picture which allowed the child to play with watercolor pencils and crayons. Observers assigned a 1 for low intensity, 2 for moderate intensity, and 3 for high intensity in relation to facial, bodily, and vocal positive affect, fear, sadness, and anger displays. Outside of these affective codes, observers also used behavioral codes on a similar three-point scale to assess engagement, sociability, activity, and impulsivity. The sample included 463 boys and 402 girls.
Across the three different measures, girls showed higher positive affect and fear and lower activity level compared to boys. When observed in the laboratory, girls showed higher levels of sociability but lower levels of negative emotionality, anger, sadness, and impulsive behavior. Maternal reports showed higher levels of overall negative emotionality and sadness for girls while paternal reports showed higher levels of sociability for boys.
Read the study for yourself: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3532859/
2.2.2. Case Studies
Psychology can also utilize a detailed description of one person or a small group based on careful observation. This was the approach the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, took to develop his theories. The advantage of this method is that you arrive at a rich description of the behavior being investigated but the disadvantage is that what you are learning may be unrepresentative of the larger population and so lacks generalizability. Again, bear in mind that you are studying one person or a very small group. Can you possibly make conclusions about all people from just one or even five or ten? The other issue is that the case study is subject to the bias of the researcher in terms of what is included in the final write up and what is left out. Despite these limitations, case studies can lead us to novel ideas about the cause of behavior and help us to study unusual conditions that occur too infrequently to study with large sample sizes and in a systematic way.
220.127.116.11. Example of a psychology of gender study utilizing a case study. Mukaddes (2002) studied cross-gender behavior in children with high functioning autism. Specifically, two boys were followed over a period of about four years who showed persistent gender identity problems. Case 2, called A.A., was a 7-year old boy referred to a child psychiatry department in Turkey due to language delay and issues with social interaction. The author goes on to describe in detail the family history and how the child showed a “persistent attachment to his mother’s and some significant female relative’s clothes and especially liked to make skirts out of their scarves. After age 5 years, he started to ‘playhouse’ and ‘play mother roles’… His parents have tried to establish good bonding between him with his father as an identification object. Despite this, his cross-gender behaviours are persistent (pg. 531).” In the discussion of both cases, the authors note that the report of cross-gender behavior in autistic cases is rare, and that their case study attempts to, “…underline that (1) diagnosis of GID in autistic individuals with a long follow-up seems possible; and (2) high functioning verbally able autistic individuals can express their gender preferences as well as other personal preferences” (pg. 532).
To learn more about observational and case study designs, please take a look at our Research Methods in Psychology textbook by visiting:
2.2.3. Surveys/Self-Report Data
As survey is a questionnaire consisting of at least one scale with some number of questions which assess a psychological construct of interest such as parenting style, depression, locus of control, communication, attitudes, or sensation seeking behavior. It may be administered by paper and pencil or computer. Surveys allow for the collection of large amounts of data quickly but the actual survey could be tedious for the participant and social desirability, when a participant answers questions dishonestly so that he/she is seen in a more favorable light, could be an issue. For instance, if you are asking high school students about their sexual activity, they may not give genuine answers for fear that their parents will find out. Or if you wanted to know about prejudicial attitudes of a group of people, you could use the survey method. You could alternatively gather this information via an interview in a structured or unstructured fashion. Important to survey research is that you have random sampling or when everyone in the population has an equal chance of being included in the sample. This helps the survey to be representative of the population and in terms of key demographic variables such as gender, age, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, education level, and religious orientation.
18.104.22.168. Example of a psychology of gender study utilizing a survey. Weiser (2004) wanted to see to what extent a gender gap existed in internet use. Utilizing a 19-item survey given to introductory psychology students, he found that males used the internet for entertainment and leisure activities while females used it for interpersonal communication and educational activities. Interestingly, he found that age and internet experience mediated the gender differences.
To learn more about the survey research design, please take a look at our Research Methods in Psychology textbook by visiting:
2.2.4. Correlational Research
This research method examines the relationship between two variables or two groups of variables. A numerical measure of the strength of this relationship is derived, called the correlation coefficient, and can range from -1.00, a perfect inverse relationship meaning that as one variable goes up the other goes down, to 0 or no relationship at all, to +1.00 or a perfect relationship in which as one variable goes up or down so does the other. In terms of a negative correlation we might say that as a parent becomes more rigid, controlling, and cold, the attachment of the child to parent goes down. In contrast, as a parent becomes warmer, more loving, and provides structure, the child becomes more attached. The advantage of correlational research is that you can correlate anything. The disadvantage is that you can correlate anything. Variables that really do not have any relationship to one another could be viewed as related. Yes. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. For instance, we might correlate instances of making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with someone we are attracted to sitting near us at lunch. Are the two related? Not likely, unless you make a really good PB&J but then the person is probably only interested in you for food and not companionship. The main issue here is that correlation does not allow you to make a causal statement.
22.214.171.124. Example of a psychology of gender study utilizing a correlational method. In a study investigating the relationship of gender role identity, support for feminism, and willingness to consider oneself a feminist, Toller, Suter, and Trautman (2004) found that when men scored high on the Sexual Identity Scale which indicates high levels of femininity, they were supportive of the women’s movement and were more willing to consider themselves a feminist (positive correlations). In contrast, high scores on the Personal Attributes Questionnaire (PAQ) masculinity index resulted in reports of being less likely to consider themselves a feminist (a negative correlation). In terms of female participants, a positive correlation was found between highly masculine women and positive attitudes toward nontraditional gender roles. The authors note, “Possible explanations for these findings may be that women often describe feminists with masculine traits, such as “dominating” and “aggressive.” Thus, the more feminine women in our study may have viewed feminism and nontraditional gender roles as masculine.”
To learn more about the correlational research design, please take a look at our Research Methods in Psychology textbook by visiting:
An experiment is a controlled test of a hypothesis in which a researcher manipulates one variable and measures its effect on another variable. The variable that is manipulated is called the independent variable (IV) and the one that is measured is called the dependent variable (DV). A common feature of experiments is to have a control group that does not receive the treatment or is not manipulated and an experimental group that does receive the treatment or manipulation. If the experiment includes random assignment participants have an equal chance of being placed in the control or experimental group. The control group allows the researcher to make a comparison to the experimental group, making a causal statement possible, and stronger.
126.96.36.199. Example of an experimental psychology of gender study. Wirth and Bodenhausen (2009) investigated whether gender played a moderating role in the stigma of mental illness in a web-based survey experiment. They asked participants to read a case summary in which the patient’s gender was manipulated along with the type of disorder. These cases were either of male-typical or female-typical disorders. Their results showed that when the cases were gender typical, participants were less sympathetic, showed more negative affect, and were less likely to help than if the cases were gender atypical. The authors proposed that the gender-typical cases were much less likely to be seen as genuine mental disturbances by the participants.
To learn more about the experimental research design, please take a look at our Research Methods in Psychology textbook by visiting:
2.2.6. Multi-Method Research
As you have seen above, no single method alone is perfect. All have their strengths and limitations. As such, for the psychologist to provide the clearest picture of what is affecting behavior or mental processes, several of these approaches are typically employed at different stages of the research process. This is called multi-method research.
2.2.7. Archival Research
Another technique used by psychologists is called archival research or when the researcher analyzes data that has already been collected and for another purpose. For instance, a researcher may request data from high schools about student’s GPA and their SAT and/or ACT score(s) and then obtain their four-year GPA from the university they attended. This can be used to make a prediction about success in college and which measure – GPA or standardized test score – is the better predictor.
Meta-analysis is a statistical procedure that allows a researcher to combine data from more than one study. For instance, Marx and Kettrey (2016) evaluated the association between the presence of Gay-straight alliances (GSAs) for LGBTQ+ youth and their allies and the youth’s self-reported victimization. In all, the results of 15 studies spanning 2001 to 2014 were combined for a final sample of 62,923 participants and indicated that when a GSA is present, homophobic victimization, fear for safety, and hearing homophobic remarks is significantly lower. The authors state, “The findings of this meta-analysis should therefore be of value to advocates, educators, and policymakers who are interested in alleviating school-based victimization of youth, as those adolescents who are perceived to be LGBTQ? are at a marked risk for such victimization.”
2.2.9. Communicating Results
In scientific research, it is common practice to communicate the findings of our investigation. By reporting what we found in our study other researchers can critique our methodology and address our limitations. Publishing allows psychology to grow its knowledge base about human behavior. We can also see where gaps still exist. We move it into the public domain so others can read and comment on it. Scientists can also replicate what we did and possibly extend our work if it is published.
There are several ways to communicate our findings. We can do so at conferences in the form of posters or oral presentations, through newsletters from APA itself or one of its many divisions or other organizations, or through research journals and specifically scientific research articles. Published journal articles represent a form of communication between scientists and in them, the researchers describe how their work relates to previous research, how it replicates and/or extends this work, and what their work might mean theoretically.
Research articles begin with an abstract or a 150-250-word summary of the entire article. The purpose is to describe the experiment and allows the reader to make a decision about whether he or she wants to read it further. The abstract provides a statement of purpose, overview of the methods, main results, and a brief statement of the conclusion. Key words are also given that allow for students and other researchers alike to find the article when doing a search.
The abstract is followed by four major sections as described:
- Introduction – The first section is designed to provide a summary of the current literature as it relates to your topic. It helps the reader to see how you arrived at your hypothesis and the design of your study. Essentially, it gives the logic behind the decisions you made. You also state the purpose and share your predictions or hypothesis.
- Method – Since replication is a required element of science, we must have a way to share information on our design and sample with readers. This is the essence of the method section and covers three major aspects of your study – your participants, materials or apparatus, and procedure. The reader needs to know who was in your study so that limitations related to generalizability of your findings can be identified and investigated in the future. You will also state your operational definition, describe any groups you used, random sampling or assignment procedures, information about how a scale was scored, etc. Think of the Method section as a cookbook. The participants are your ingredients, the materials or apparatus are whatever tools you will need, and the procedure is the instructions for how to bake the cake.
- Results – In this section you state the outcome of your experiment and whether they were statistically significant or not. You can also present tables and figures.
- Discussion – In this section you start by restating the main findings and hypothesis of the study. Next, you offer an interpretation of the findings and what their significance might be. Finally, you state strengths and limitations of the study which will allow you to propose future directions.
Whether you are writing a research paper for a class or preparing an article for
publication, or reading a research article, the structure and function of a research article is the same. Understanding this will help you when reading psychology of gender research articles.
2.3. Reliability and Validity
Section Learning Objectives
- Clarify why reliability and validity are important.
- Define reliability and list and describe forms it takes.
- Define validity and list and describe forms it takes.
Recall that measurement involves the assignment of scores to an individual which are used to represent aspects of the individual such as how conscientious they are or their level of depression. Whether or not the scores actually represent the individual is what is in question. Cuttler (2019) says in her book Research Methods in Psychology, “Psychologists do not simply assume that their measures work. Instead, they collect data to demonstrate that they work. If their research does not demonstrate that a measure works, they stop using it.” So how do they demonstrate that a measure works? This is where reliability and validity come in.
First, reliability describes how consistent a measure is. It can be measured in terms of test-retest reliability, or how reliable the measure is across time, internal consistency, or the “consistency of people’s responses across the items on a multiple-item measure,” (Cuttler, 2019), and finally inter-rater reliability, or how consistent different observers are when making judgments. In terms of inter-rater reliability, Cuttler (2019) writes, “If you were interested in measuring university students’ social skills, you could make video recordings of them as they interacted with another student whom they are meeting for the first time. Then you could have two or more observers watch the videos and rate each student’s level of social skills. To the extent that each participant does, in fact, have some level of social skills that can be detected by an attentive observer, different observers’ ratings should be highly correlated with each other.”
A measure is considered to be valid if its scores represent the variable it is said to measure. For instance, if a scale says it measures depression, and it does, then we can say it is valid. Validity can take many forms. First, face validity is “the extent to which a measurement method appears “on its face” to measure the construct of interest” (Cuttler, 2019). A scale purported to measure values should have questions about values such as benevolence, conformity, and self-direction, and not questions about depression or attitudes toward toilet paper.
Content validity is to what degree a measure covers the construct of interest. Cuttler (2019) says, “… consider that attitudes are usually defined as involving thoughts, feelings, and actions toward something. By this conceptual definition, a person has a positive attitude toward exercise to the extent that he or she thinks positive thoughts about exercising, feels good about exercising, and actually exercises.”
Often times, we expect a person’s scores on one measure to be correlated with scores on another measure that we expect it to be related to, called criterion validity. For instance, consider parenting style and attachment. We would expect that if a person indicates on one scale that their father was authoritarian (or dictatorial) then attachment would be low or insecure. In contrast, if the mother was authoritative (or democratic) we would expect the child to show a secure attachment style.
As researchers we expect that our results will generalize from our sample to the larger population. This was the issue with case studies as the sample is too small to make conclusions about everyone. If our results do generalize from the circumstances under which our study was conducted to similar situations, then we can say our study has external validity. External validity is also affected by how real the research is. Two types of realism are possible. First, mundane realism occurs when the research setting closely resembles the real world setting. Experimental realism is the degree to which the experimental procedures that are used feel real to the participant. It does not matter if they really mirror real life but that they only appear real to the participant. If so, his or her behavior will be more natural and less artificial.
In contrast, a study is said to have good internal validity when we can confidently say that the effect on the dependent variable (the one that is measured) was due solely to our manipulation or the independent variable. A confound occurs when a factor other than the independent variable leads to changes in the dependent variable.
To learn more about reliability and validity, please visit:
2.4. Research Ethics
Section Learning Objectives
- Exemplify instances of ethical misconduct in research.
- List and describe principles of research ethics.
Throughout this module so far, we have seen that it is important for researchers to understand the methods they are using. Equally important, they must understand and appreciate ethical standards in research. The American Psychological Association identifies high standards of ethics and conduct as one of its four main guiding principles or missions. To read about the other three, please visit https://www.apa.org/about/index.aspx. So why are ethical standards needed and what do they look like?
2.4.1. Milgram’s Study on Learning…or Not
Possibly, the one psychologist students know about the most is Stanley Milgram, if not by name, then by his study on obedience using shock (Milgram, 1974). Essentially, two individuals came to each experimental session but only one of these two individuals was a participant. The other was what is called a confederate and part of the study without the participant knowing. The confederate was asked to pick heads or tails and then a coin was flipped. As you might expect, the confederate always won and chose to be the learner. The “experimenter,” who was also a confederate, took him into one room where he was hooked up to wires and electrodes. This was done while the “teacher,” the actual participant, watched and added to the realism of what was being done. The teacher was then taken into an adjacent room where he was seated in front of a shock generator. The teacher was told it was his task to read a series of word pairs to the learner. Upon completion of reading the list, he would ask the learner one of the two words and it was the learner’s task to state what the other word in the pair was. If the learner incorrectly paired any of the words, he would be shocked. The shock generator started at 30 volts and increased in 15-volt increments up to 450 volts. The switches were labeled with terms such as “Slight shock,” “Moderate shock,” “Danger: Severe Shock,” and the final two switches were ominously labeled “XXX.”
As the experiment progressed, the teacher would hear the learner scream, holler, plead to be released, complain about a heart condition, or say nothing at all. When the learner stopped replying, the teacher would turn to the experimenter and ask what to do, to which the experimenter indicated for him to treat nonresponses as incorrect and shock the learner. Most participants asked the experimenter whether they should continue at various points in the experiment. The experimenter issued a series of commands to include, “Please continue,” “It is absolutely essential that you continue,” and “You have no other choice, you must go on.”
Any guesses as to what happened? What percent of the participants would you hypothesize actually shocked the learner to death? Milgram found that 65 percent of participants/teachers shocked the learner to the XXX switches which would have killed him. Why? They were told to do so. How do you think the participant felt when they realized that they could kill someone simply because they were told to do so?
Source: Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.
If you would like to learn more about the moral foundations of ethical research, please visit:
2.4.2. Ethical Guidelines
Due to these studies, and others, the American Psychological Association (APA) established guiding principles for conducting psychological research. The principles can be broken down in terms of when they should occur during the process of a person participating in the study.
188.8.131.52. Before participating. First, researchers must obtain informed consent or when the person agrees to participate because they are told what will happen to them. They are given information about any risks they face, or potential harm that could come to them, whether physical or psychological. They are also told about confidentiality or the person’s right not to be identified. Since most research is conducted with students taking introductory psychology courses, they have to be given the right to do something other than a research study to likely earn required credits for the class. This is called an alternative activity and could take the form of reading and summarizing a research article. The amount of time taken to do this should not exceed the amount of time the student would be expected to participate in a study.
184.108.40.206. While participating. Participants are afforded the ability to withdraw or the person’s right to exit the study if any discomfort is experienced.
220.127.116.11. After participating. Once their participation is over, participants should be debriefed or when the true purpose of the study is revealed and they are told where to go if they need assistance and how to reach the researcher if they have questions. So can researchers deceive participants, or intentionally withhold the true purpose of the study from them? According to the APA, a minimal amount of deception is allowed.
Human research must be approved by an Institutional Review Board or IRB. It is the IRB that will determine whether the researcher is providing enough information for the participant to give consent that is truly informed, if debriefing is adequate, and if any deception is allowed or not.
If you would like to learn more about how to use ethics in your research, please read:
In Module 1 we stated that psychology studied behavior and mental processes using the strict standards of science. In Module 2 we showed you how that is done via adoption of the scientific method and use of the research designs of observation, case study, surveys, correlation, and experiments. To make sure our measurement of a variable is sound, we need to have measures that can are reliable and valid. And to give our research legitimacy we have to use clear ethical standards for research to include gaining informed consent from participants, telling them of the risks, giving them the right to withdraw, debriefing them, and using nothing more than minimal deception.