Ethics for Human Participants

Whether you are using human participants for the first time or are a veteran psychological investigator, you should be sensitive to a number of issues. The following thoughts are offered for your information and reflection. However, they comprise only a subset of the many concerns that arise when doing research with human participants.

The Department of Psychology subscribes to the Department of Health and Human Service’s “Common Rule” and the “Belmont Report.”

Trust. Normally, a person enters the psychology laboratory with initially at least some element of trust in the experimenter. After all, this person is a psychologist (or at least a budding one) and therefore sensitive to such things as feelings and emotions. Participants entering the lab “trust” that they will not be harmed physically or psychologically and that if the procedure is at all potentially harmful they will be given an opportunity not to participate. A related aspect of trust involves the amount of information a subject is given prior to the experiment. For example, if a complex theory of memory is being investigated, most people consider it sufficient if participants are briefly told that they are about to participate in a memory experiment. On the other hand, some experiments are designed so that participants are purposely deceived as to the real purpose. Deception should only be used when it is essential to the design of the study.


The policy within this department is to review any experiments calling for such deception with the following questions in mind:

1. What psychological injury may result from the deception, and does the potential information to be gained warrant the risk?

2. How might the experiment be redesigned to reduce or eliminate the deception?


A second issue closely related to the first is privacy. Participants have the right to expect that any information collected as part of their participation in the experiment not be specifically identified with them after they leave the experiment. Although their data might be reported on an individual or mean (average) basis in senior project, journal article, etc., they have the right to expect anonymity unless their permission is specifically secured in writing.

Informed consent

Principle D of the American Psychological Association’s Ethical Principles in the Conduct of Research with Human Participants notes that “…the investigator establishes a clear and fair agreement with research participants, prior to their participation, that clarifies the obligations and responsibilities of each. … The investigator informs the participants of all aspects of the research that might reasonably be expected to influence willingness to participate and explains all other aspects of the research about which the participants inquire.” Ethical problems may arise, however, because the requirements of effective psychological research sometimes conflict with the simple fulfillment of the obligation to obtain informed consent.

The most common reason for limiting information is that valid data could not be obtained if the participants were fully informed about the purposes and procedures of the research. Methodological requirements of the research may demand that the participants remain unaware of the specific hypotheses under investigation. In other situations, incomplete information or misinformation may have to be provided to elicit the behavior of a naive individual or to create psychological reality under conditions that permit valid inference.

This is a complex issue that must be revolved on a case by case basis. Clearly the ethical idea of obtaining fully informed consent cannot be realized in some research without the possibility that the results will be in error. Therefore, if methodological requirement necessitate the user of concealment or deception, the investigator has a special responsibility to (1) determine whether the use of such techniques is justified by the study’s prospective scientific, educational, or applied value; (2) determine whether alternative procedures are available that do not use concealment or deception; and (3) ensure that the participants are provided with sufficient explanation as soon as possible. These issues should be explored with your faculty advisor before you undertake a project that involves deception or concealment.

Educational return

Experimenters often overlook the fact that students are participating in their experiment as part of a course requirement and therefore expect (or should expect) to derive something of educational value from their experimental experience. Besides what a subject might “pick up” on their own, the experimenter should be prepared to actively participate in this process. Minimally, the experimenter is required to debrief the subject by including a written description of the experimental with journal or book references for the subject to pursue the subject wishes. Debriefing should ideally be provided immediately after participation but may have to be delayed until completion of the experiment so as not to bias future participants. Additionally, participants must be allowed to see their experimental results if they so desire. This would, of course, need to be delayed usually until completion of the experiment.

In summary, you, as an experimenter, are required to honor these commitments with regard to trust, privacy, and educational return.

It should be remembered that the members of the Psychology Department are concerned both personally and professionally with the maintenance of high standards in the treatment of human participants. This is why an ethics committee was established to review all requests for participants, and why these guidelines will be strictly enforced.

The Carnegie Ethics Committee

Research projects involving human participants must be approved before any data collection can begin. The Allegheny College Institutional Review Board (IRB) is the group that grants such approvals, and it is registered with the US Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Human Research Protection (OHRP). The Carnegie Ethics Committee has been designated by the IRB to review proposals from students in the Psychology Department. Thus, both the College’s IRB and the Carnegie Ethics Committee are required to comply with OHRP mandates. The Carnegie Ethics Committee is authorized to determine exemptions and conduct expedited reviews. The IRB web site describes the criteria used to determine whether a project is eligible for an exemption or an expedited review. From the inside Allegheny page, the IRB web site can be accessed by clicking on Committees and then on Institutional Review Board. If you are off campus, click on the Current Students tab of the College home page, then on More Resources, and finally, on Institutional Review Board.

The IRB web site provides information about ethics review in the FAQs tab and the forms required to submit a research proposal for review to either the Carnegie Ethics Committee or the IRB. In addition, the IRB web site provides links to useful ethics documents and to the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI) which provides an on line ethics training course required of all students conducting human research. There is also a document with instructions on how to register with CITI.

Steps for Students Submitting a Research Proposal for Review

  1. Complete any required certification through CITI.
  2. In consultation with your research supervisor, determine if the research is eligible for an exemption or an expedited review. If you are applying for an exemption or expedited review, required forms should be submitted through your faculty supervisor’s email account to Professor Monali Chowdhury,, Chair of the Carnegie Ethics Committee. If, however, you are requesting a full IRB review, please submit the forms to Professor Becky Dawson,, Chair of the IRB.
  3. Complete the necessary IRB forms for your submission. Please note that the forms are Google docs. Thus, they can be shared with your research supervisor.
  4. All materials should be submitted electronically. Submission from a faculty email account implies that the faculty member has reviewed and approved the project.

Recruitment of participants may not begin until the appropriate permissions have been obtained. Information on procedures for recruiting participants from classes in the Department should be read carefully as you plan your study.

Experimenter responsibilities. Experimenters are expected to keep their appointments with participants. If unexpected events make it impossible to conduct an experiment as scheduled, the experimenter should either obtain a substitute experimenter or call the participants to cancel the appointment. Simply posting a notice on the lab or classroom door indicating that the experiment is cancelled is not enough.

A written debriefing of all participants involved in a study is required. The debriefing should include the purpose of the study, a description of the major methodological aspects of the study and how they relate to the purpose, the name and phone number of the experimenter in case participants have questions about the study at a later point, and several references that participants can read to learn more about the particular area of research. Studies using any form of deception must also include an oral debriefing of participants prior to their leaving the experimental session.

Debriefing Form

Student researchers are notorious for their debriefing statements. Usually the statements use jargon that the subject will not understand. When you write your debriefing statement, assume that the reader has no background in psychology. Write it in plain English. For example, below are two versions of a debriefing statement, the first loaded with jargon, and the second a “translation” of the first into English. You have just participated in a study which is concerned with a cognitive developmental task referred to as the coordination of perspectives. This microspatial developmental task was developed by Jean Piaget and Barbel Inhelder. It has been demonstrated to be a task which is representative of one’s overall level of spatial development. This has been verified through research efforts employing cross-sectional longitudinal, and cross-sequential designs. The study within which you have been a participant was specifically concerned with he manipulation of two independent variables: the orientation of the other observer and the dimensionality of the comparison stimuli. The dependent measures of interest included correct responses, incorrect-egocentric responses, and incorrect-correct-non-egocentric responses. It is anticipated that the findings of this study will have an impact upon the efforts of researchers concerned with microspatial cognitive development, macrospecial cognitive development, and environmental cognition. You have just completed a task designed to measure development of the ability to view a situation from different points of view. We manipulated where the other person stood and we also manipulated the complexity of what you viewed. We were interested in knowing when you were correct as well as they way in which you were incorrect. We wanted to know which incorrect responses were caused by your imposing your own view upon the situation. We hope that our results will influence the way that other study the same problem.

Procedures for Recruitment

Participants can be recruited from any course within the psychology department with permission of the instructor. However, because many studies require naive participants, introductory psychology and FS courses are most likely to be used in recruiting participants. Student researchers should be aware that whether or not extra credit for participation is offered will depend on the level of the course and the instructor. Experimenters should find out the policies of particular instructors before recruiting participants since a mix of volunteer and extra credit participants may cause design problems.


The Department of Psychology at Allegheny College uses a web-based system, SONA, to manage and schedule Psychology Department research.  Once you have created an account, you will be able to view current available research experiments and schedule appointments to participate in these experiments. You must to be at least 18 years old to participate in the experiments listed on SONA.

Some instructors permit investigators to obtain screening information from potential participants in the classroom (e.g., demographic or personality information). Please note that such permission is only granted under special circumstances and that most teachers will ask you to set up opportunities outside of class time to collect such information.

Being a part of an experiment should be an educational opportunity. That is why a debriefing statement is so important. When you approach an instructor seeking his or her permission to recruit participants, you should be prepared to provide information about what your study is all about and what participants will be expected to do. Copies of the ethics committee proposal should be adequate for this purpose. However, some professors may asked for additional information or they may ask you to come into their class after the completion of the data collection to explain what you were doing and what happened.

But no matter how participants are recruited, it is your responsibility as a researcher to make sure that information about who participated is provided to the instructors who offered their classes to you.

Ethics for Animal Subjects

Psychology encompasses a broad range of areas of research and applied endeavors. Important parts of these endeavors are teaching and research on the behavior of nonhuman animals. These efforts contribute in a variety of ways to the understanding of basic principles underlying behavior and to advancing the welfare of both human and nonhuman animals. Clearly, psychologists should conduct their teaching and research in a manner consonant with relevant laws and regulations In addition, the conscience of the individual psychologist critically contributes to establishing and implementing the humane use of animals. Ethical concerns mandate that psychologists should weigh the probable costs and benefits of procedures involving animals.

The American Psychological Association has provided guidelines governing animal research. As a general principle,

An investigator of animal behavior strives to advance understanding of basic principles and/or to contribute to the improvement of human health and welfare. In seeking these ends, the investigator ensures the welfare of animals and treats them humanely. Laws and regulations notwithstanding, an animal’s immediate protection depends upon the scientist’s own conscience.

The five primary considerations for researchers using animal subjects are listed below.

  1. The acquisition, care, use, and disposal of all animals are in compliance with current federal, state or provincial, and local laws and regulations.
  2. A psychologist trained in research methods and experienced in the care of laboratory animals closely supervises all procedures involving animals and is responsible for ensuring appropriate consideration of their comfort, health, and humane treatment.
  3. Psychologists ensure that all individuals using animals under their supervision have received explicit instruction in experimental methods and in the care, maintenance, and handling of the species being used. Responsibilities and activities of individuals participating in a research project are consistent with their respective competencies.
  4. Psychologists make every effort to minimize discomfort, illness, and pain of animals. A procedure subjecting animals to pain, stress, or privation is used only when an alternative procedure is unavailable and the goal is justified by its prospective scientific, educational, or applied value. Surgical procedures are performed under appropriate anesthesia; techniques to avoid infection and minimize pain are followed during and after surgery.
  5. When it is appropriate that the animal’s life be terminated, it is done rapidly and painlessly.

To insure that these guidelines are followed in every research project undertaken in the Department of Psychology, we have established an Animal Care and Use Committee and drawn up a set of procedures that must be followed before research involving nonhuman animals may be undertaken. Please note that just as with research involving human participants, no research project with nonhuman animals may begin with out the explicit approval of the Animal Care and Use Committee.