Early experiments in psychological science did not follow ethical standards because many of the current guidelines were developed and published later than these studies were performed. The four fundamental ethical principles of research were first described in 1979 by Childress and Beauchamp: autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice (Goodwin, Mays, and Pope, 2020). Before these principles were developed, the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki established the requirements for conducting human subjects studies, highlighting the importance of informed consent and confidentiality (Goodwin, Mays, and Pope, 2020). Animal studies also undergo evaluation of institutional research ethics committees to ensure that harm is minimized (Capitanio, 2017). Skinner’s, Harlow’s, and Rosenhan’s experiments made a significant contribution to understanding human behavior, but specific violations of ethics in their methodology led to questioning the validity of these studies.
One of the most criticized studies in psychology is Rosenhan’s experiment about doctors’ bias towards labeling healthy people with a psychiatric condition. Indeed, all pseudopatients who faked their identities and symptoms were admitted to hospitals for suspected acute psychotic states and were diagnosed with schizophrenia (Griggs, Blyler, and Jackson, 2020). Other scientists scrutinized Rosenhan’s research and concluded that it was conducted with multiple flaws. The first violation was deviating from the original research plan but presenting the findings with unaltered methods. Specifically, Rosenhan did not just tell doctors that he hears empty voices but described his fake symptoms in detail, adding psychotic features not mentioned in the original design (Griggs, Blyler, and Jackson, 2020). Second, the data was presented selectively, where positive descriptions of psychiatric institutions were removed from the final report (Griggs, Blyler, and Jackson, 2020). Third, Rosenhan failed to prepare and protect the participants of this study. They had to spend some time in hospitals because doctors were not notified about their actual identity and purpose. It appears that this study was done with substantial violation of ethical and research standards.
Skinner’s and Harlow’s experiments were performed on animals, but both studies lack proper discussion of ethical implications of conditions created for animals in these cases. Skinner’s studies on rodents and pigeons seem to be ethically questionable due to the introduction of electric shock to animals, but this work was less criticized, considering the value of the results for behavioral psychology. Harlow’s work made a substantial contribution to understanding relations between infants and caregivers. Since Harlow’s results were published long before the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act was approved, this study was considered legal (Radetzki, 2018). However, some scientists criticized him for “being ethically thoughtless, a sadistic experimentalist, self-absorbed” and “conducting cruel, inhumane, and unjustifiable researches” (Radetzki, 2018, p. 215). Modern ethical committees would not likely approve such experiments now, but this study became instrumental in demonstrating that animals, like humans, can establish affectionate relationships with their offspring.
In summary, despite the enormous contribution to psychological science, methods used by Harlow, Skinner, and Rosenhan had particular violations of the foundational principles of research ethics. Skinner’s and Harlow’s studies were criticized for the cruel treatment of animals during procedures. Moreover, psychologists doubted the validity of Rosenhan’s experiment because he did not take necessary precautions to protect his participants and misrepresented the study results. Overall, these three experiments were performed before official documentation about ethical standards was developed; hence, their findings cannot be denied primarily due to the contribution to understanding the human psyche and behavior.
Capitanio, J. (2017) Animal studies in psychology. Web.
Goodwin, D., Mays, N. and Pope, C. (2020) ‘Ethical issues in qualitative research’, in Pope, C. and Mays, N. (eds.), Qualitative research in health care, 4th edn., pp. 27-41. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Griggs, R.A., Blyler, J. and Jackson, S.L. (2020) ‘New revelations about Rosenhan’s pseudopatient study: scientific integrity in remission’, Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, pp. 1-8. Web.
Radetzki, P. (2018) ‘Harlow’s famous monkey study: the historical and contemporary significance of the nature of love’, Canadian Journal of Family and Youth, 10(1), pp. 205-234. Web.