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The Nuremberg Code and Ethics in Psychological Research.

Updated on December 09, 2014

Ethics are principles that determine and guide our behaviour. In psychological research there are ethical codes that researchers must adhere too. These guidelines haven't always existed but have been developed over time to help protect research participants from as much harm and distress as possible.

All research should be carried out in responsible and ethical ways.
All research should be carried out in responsible and ethical ways. | Source

The Nuremburg Code

The first generally accepted code of ethics for research on humans is known as the Nuremberg Code and was developed in 1947. The research conducted by the Nazi's during world war 2 caused many people's deaths and for others to be left with deformities or long term injuries. People where shocked by the research and the fact that it was carried out by doctors and scientists, who were seen as people could be relied on and trusted. They wanted to prevent anything similar happening in the future and sought to create rules that must be followed by anyone carrying out research on or using humans. The Nuremberg code became the basis for all future codes of ethics in medicine and psychology.

Within the Nuremberg code there were four key principles:

Informed consent – Any participant must be given full information about the research and their part in it so they can make an informed decision on whether or not to participate.

Right to withdraw – Any participant must be able to withdraw from the research at any time they wish.

Welfare of the participant – Any participants well being should be protected as much as possible at all times.

Costs and benefits – Any risks to a studies participants must be greatly outweighed by the possible benefits of the research to the world as a whole.

Milgram's Obedience Studies

Stanley Milgram studied obedience and what factors effect people's obedience. Like the Nuremberg code he was inspired by the behaviour of the Nazi's during world war 2. He wanted to try to find out what made people obey and whether some people were more obedient than others.

Milgram placed an advert in a local paper asking for participants for a study on memory. Participants where paired, one was the 'teacher' and the other the 'learner' To see what effect punishment has on learning the teacher was told to administer an electric shock for every wrong answer given by the learner. The shock generator was labelled in increments from 15v up to 450v. Each increment was also described such as 'slight shock', 'strong shock' and 'danger: severe shock' For each wrong answer the shocks should increase by one increment on the generator. During the test no one was hurt as the learners response to the shocks were a tape recording and the learner was in on what was happening. But the teacher could not see this and was lead to believe that they were really giving stronger and stronger shocks to the learners. If the teacher seemed like they were going to stop a man in a lab coat urged them to continue.

Milgram found that many people obeyed and gave the shocks even if they seemed uncomfortable and showed signs of regret afterwards. He also found that the participants urged to continue by the lab coat wearing man continued further up the levels of shocks even though they could hear the learner in obvious pain and distress. He found that it seemed that being told to do something by an authority figure makes people obey beyond what they might of done otherwise and to continue even if they feel uncomfortable.

Milgram was criticised for not protecting the welfare of his participants enough because he continued the experiment even though they were clearly anxious or upset and also at least implied that they had no right to withdraw by telling them to continue even when they wanted to stop. Milgram also lied about what the study was about, saying it was on memory when in fact it was on obedience. In Milgram's defence if he had been honest about the studies topic it may of effected the results as people may have been consciously or subconsciously more or less obedient. Milgram had no way of knowing beforehand that participants would become so distressed and his work did contribute a lot to psychological theory. He also took the step of debriefing his participants which was not common practice at the time. He later met with the participants and revealed the true nature of the experiment and the fact that no one was actually hurt. A year after the experiment Milgram met with the participants again and 84% said they were glad they had taken part and had learnt something about themselves that they felt was important.

Harry Harlow's Rhesus Monkey Experiments

In the 1950s an American psychologist called Harry Harlow wanted to find out what made babies bond with their mothers. Some people believed it was just because their mothers provided food but others such as John Bowlby, believed that babies are born with an inbuilt tendency to become attached to anything that was warm and soft. As mothers generally provide all of the above it was a difficult thing to research by observing humans as groups of babies would have to be prevented from receiving food or cuddles from their mothers. Ethics prevent such research being carried out with human babies due to the possible damage to their emotional and psychological well being. Because of this Harlow devised an experiment using Rhesus monkeys.

Harlow's experiments provided the baby monkeys with either a hard wire 'mother' who provided food or a soft, cuddly 'mother'. In some groups this soft mother provided food and in others it did not. Harlow found that the baby monkeys preferred to spend more time with the soft mother regardless of whether it provided food or not.

Many people where shocked by Harlow's research and felt that his experiments were cruel and even sadistic. These days some of Harlow's work would not have been permitted due to ethics codes. Any experiment with human participants is not allowed to cause long term discomfort or distress and the people's welfare should be paramount at all times. Although animals do not receive the same there are still very strict rules about using them in research. One of these is that the benefits of the study must be able to justify the amount of suffering caused and that any suffering must be kept to a minimum.

Harlow's first experiment used eight monkeys and improved our understanding of human attachment profoundly. Harlow's research gave John Bowlby scientific evidence to back up his ideas about child rearing practices. Bowlby then later went on to write the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which has had a massive life changing effect on children worldwide. Bearing this in mind, it could be acceptable to say that although the monkeys did suffer, the study provided vital evidence about human babies and improved how they are cared for and related too and so was therefore worth it.


Although ethical guidelines sometimes limit what research can be carried out or how it can be done developing codes of ethics is important as it protects the people who take part in any research form being exposed to harmful or dangerous situations that could even have long term detrimental effects on them. It can sometimes be hard to determine whether what could be gained from a study is worth putting people or animal participants through the experiments needed. However if ethical guidelines had always existed within psychological research we would not have been able to find out some very important information about human nature including the huge difference Harlow's experiments made to our care and upbringing of children.

© 2012 Claire

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