Ethics in Cultural Psychological Research

Research, whether indigenous or cross-cultural, must be conducted ethically. The American Psychological Association (APA) has created a set of common ethical principles and shared standards to guide the professional and scientific responsibilities of psychologists. A major goal of the principles and code of conduct is to educate professionals in psychology, students, colleagues, patients and members of the public about the ethical standards of the field. The ethical principles include:

  • Beneficience and non-maleficence
  • Fidelity & responsibility
  • Integrity
  • Justice
  • Respect for people’s

Psychological researchers agree that good research is ethical and is guided by a basic respect for human dignity and safety. Unfortunately, this has not always been the case. One notable example of unethical research in the United States was the Tuskegee syphilis study conducted by the US Public Health Service from 1932 to 1972 (Reverby, 2009).


A group of four Black men and women are receiving items from two males. There is a car behind the group of people and the truck is open showing boxes.
Unethical medical research conducted by the United States government on African American men has left lasting distrust of medical research and contributes to lower participation rates of members in the African American community. [Image courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Released Public Domain:]

The participants in this study were poor African American men in the vicinity of Tuskegee, Alabama, who were told that they were being treated for “bad blood.” Although they were given some free medical care, they were not told they had syphilis and were not treated for the disease. Instead, they were observed to see how the disease would develop and progress in untreated patients. Even after the use of penicillin became the standard treatment for syphilis in the 1940s, these men continued to be denied treatment and were not given an opportunity to leave the study. It was eventually discontinued after details were shared with the general public but negative consequences of the study persist. Shaver et al (2000) found that African-Americans had less trust in researchers and were less likely to participate in research as a result of the Tuskegee experiment.

Today, any experiment that involves human subjects is governed by extensive, strict guidelines designed to ensure that the experiment does not result in harm to the participants. Any research institution in the United States that receives federal support for research involving human participants must have access to an institutional review board (IRB). The IRB is a committee of individuals often made up of members of the institution’s administration, scientists, and community members.

The purpose of the IRB is to review research proposals that involve human participants. Psychologists must receive prior approval from an institutional research board (IRB) before beginning any experiment. Among the most important principles protecting human subjects are:

Informed consent states that people should know when they are involved in research, and understand what will happen to them during the study (at least in general terms that do not give away the hypothesis). Researchers conducting cultural or cross-cultural research should consider the possibility that informed consent may not be a custom of the culture and the concept may not be understood by the participants.

Voluntary participation is the choice to participate, along with the freedom to withdraw from the study at any time. Certain kinds of methods—such as naturalistic observation in public spaces, or archival research based on public records—do not require obtaining informed consent. Some cultures may not recognize individual and autonomous choice to participate and involvement may be mandatory. Researchers should be aware of how participation, voluntary or mandatory, may influence participant self-disclosure and responding.

Privacy encompasses two broad concepts, anonymity and confidentiality. Researchers also may not identify individual participants in their research reports. Typically, psychologists and researchers report only group means and other statistics. With online data collection becoming increasingly popular, researchers also have to be mindful that they follow local data privacy laws, collect only the data that they really need (e.g., avoiding including unnecessary questions in surveys), strictly restrict access to the raw data, and have a plan to securely destroy the data after it is no longer needed. Researchers should not assume that the same protections of data privacy extend across cultures.

Risks and Benefits are key elements of ethics in research and people who agree to participate in psychological studies should be exposed to risk only if they fully understand the risks and only if the likely benefits clearly outweigh those risks. Researchers wishing to investigate implicit prejudice using the IAT, need to be considerate of the consequences of providing feedback to participants about their unconscious biases. Similarly, any manipulations that could potentially provoke serious emotional reactions (culture of honor study described earlier) or relatively permanent changes in people’s beliefs or behaviors (e.g., attitudes towards vaccination) need to be carefully reviewed by the IRB.

Deception refers to the need for some research to deceive participants (e.g., using a cover story) to prevent participants from modifying their behavior in unnatural ways, especially in laboratory or field experiments. In these instances, researchers may hide the true nature of the study.

Five adult white males are sitting at a table. Over the top of the image are two rectangles and in each rectangle are several lines that are labelled.
The Asch conformity experiment, which investigated individual conformity, remains a classic example of a deception used in a psychological experiment. [Image: D-janous,, CC BY-SA 4.0,]

For example, when Asch recruited participants for his experiments on conformity, he described it as being a study of visual spatial skills. Deception is typically only permitted (a) when the benefits of the study outweigh the risks, (b) participants are not reasonably expected to be harmed, (c) the research question cannot be answered without the use of deception, and (d) participants are informed about the deception as soon as possible, usually through debriefing. Deception studies may be approved in one culture or country but researchers should not assume that deception studies are permissible or will be approved in all cultures.

Debriefing is the process of informing research participants as soon as possible of the purpose of the study, revealing any deceptions, and correcting any misconceptions they might have as a result of participating. Debriefing also involves minimizing harm that might have occurred. For example, an experiment examining the effects of sad moods on charitable behavior might involve inducing a sad mood in participants by having them think sad thoughts, watch a sad video, or listen to sad music. Debriefing would therefore be the time to return participants’ moods to normal by having them think happy thoughts, watch a happy video, or listen to happy music.


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Culture and Psychology Copyright © 2020 by L D Worthy; T Lavigne; and F Romero is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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