Researchers in the University's Psychology Department are interested in establishing whether participants in a study will react differently if they are given different versions of the same situation, one with a negative outcome and another with a positive one.
For example, a researcher may wish to study the effect of negative expectations on exam performance. Therefore, half of the subjects are told that this is a very difficult test and they are not likely to do well. The other half are told that it is a relatively simple exam and they are likely to do well. The hypothesis is that people live up to expectations.
In setting up the experiment, the researchers realize that they will have to practice deception since, in fact, both groups of subjects will take the same exam although it will be described differently. However, after weighing all the elements of the study, they are convinced that there is no risk to the people who are participating. They are all over the age of 18 and the deception required is mild.
What course should the investigators follow?
Regulation of research involving humans appeared after World War II when the world found out about the type of experiments that Nazis physicians had been conducting on persons they had imprisoned.
In the United States, regulations were spurred by these studies:
The Tuskegee study was initiated by the United States Public Health Service to discover the long-term effects of untreated syphilis. The subjects were African-American men from disadvantaged backgrounds who were not informed of their diagnosis and were denied treatment even after a cure was found.
The Atomic Energy Commission study involved 815 pregnant women who were given a “vitamin cocktail” by their doctors. In 1993, these women discovered that they had, in fact, been drinking radioactive iron as part of government sponsored research. Many of the children born of these pregnancies died prematurely of cancer.
Radiation studies of this sort continued for more than 30 years, from the 1940s through the 1970s, well after the effects of exposure to radiation were known.
The 40 men used in the Yale University study were brought into a laboratory and told they would play the role of teachers. Forty students were then led into another room and strapped into chairs with electrodes attached. The “teachers” were seated in front of a control panel with voltage settings, some of which read “Extreme Intensity Shock” and others “Danger: Severe Shock.”
The "teachers” read a list of word pairs to the students. Each time a student gave an incorrect answer, the “teacher” was told to administer a shock. Each mistake led to an increase in voltage. “Teachers” could hear the students who, by the end of the experiment, were screaming, kicking the wall, and finally silent.
In reality, the “students” were researchers and there was no electricity hooked up to the electrodes nor were any shocks actually transmitted. The only real subjects were the “teachers.”
From these and other studies it became clear that regulations were needed to control the type of research and experiments that could be conducted when human subjects were involved.
Next Chapter: What are the basic elements of the research code of ethics?