An extremely brief overview of Ethics and their history

Ethics: a necessity or just another limiting factor for our research projects? I’m sure we’d all love to be able to conduct any research we like without having to fill in all those tedious forms for the ethics committee. Then we really could poke people with a massive stick and see what happens. Some of the most famous experiments (Zimbardo’s prison study, or Milgram’s research into the power of authority figures to name but two) would never make it past ethics these days. But why are ethics so important? However much we might complain about not being able to get our participants wildly drunk before an experiment to see how it affects our behaviour, I think we can all see how possibly harmful that could be to our participants. And preventing harm is exactly what ethics were developed for and why they have evolved and grown over the years.

The history of modern research ethics has its roots in the Nuremberg Trials of 1946, ‘47 and ’48, when the various atrocities committed by the Nazi regime came to international public attention. A number of medical experiments were examined during these trials; including many where the only aim seemed to be finding out the most efficient way of killing people; by deliberately exposing them to disease, toxins, or extreme conditions (Investigators at the trials said that these doctors had not been doing medical research but merely researching Thanatology). The doctors and scientists involved claimed that what they had done could not be deemed illegal as the laws governing experimentation at the time were either sketchy or nonexistent. To prevent further such experimentation the Nuremberg code was devised; a code of ethics for human experimentation that is the basis for all modern ethical research guidelines. The most significant were those guidelines which prevented harm to participant, and those which stated that the participant must give informed consent; as, prior to the Second World War, experiments without consent and with the possibility of harm were not uncommon in the scientific community across the world.

The Helsinki Declaration of 1964 was the first attempt by the medical community to regulate experimental procedure; in others words, to set an ethical standard for human research which, although not a law, should be a moral and professional benchmark for all scientist engaged in human research. This means that the ethical guidelines laid out in the Declaration of Helsinki do not only protect participants but also the integrity of research and science. Researchers are encouraged to work to the highest possible ethical standard, which engenders public trust in science. So not only do ethics provide us with moral guidance, they also help to prevent unethical work from bringing science into disrepute.

Almost every discipline has its own set of ethical guidelines (, for the most part based on ideas found in the Nuremberg Code and the Declaration of Helsinki and Psychology is no different. APA gives us 5 ethical principles to abide by:

  • Beneficence and Nonmaleficence
  • Fidelity and Responsibility
  • Integrity
  • Justice
  • Respect for People’s Rights and Dignity


And of course being the APA, therefore generous and not at all overly prescriptive (especially about citations and references), they also give us 5 principles to help us avoid ethical quandaries, arguments and other mix-ups:

  • ·         Discuss intellectual property frankly
  • ·         Be conscious of multiple roles
  • ·         Follow informed-consent rules
  • ·         Respect confidentiality and privacy
  • ·         Tap into ethics resources


I’ve always felt that the importance of ethics was obvious; basically don’t do something that could hurt someone else and don’t force someone to do something they don’t want to. These ideas are so ingrained in my conscience that I’m still surprised that they feel the need to try and teach us these things in lectures etc. (Although Neil’s interpretation of ethics in The Inbetweeners movie this summer did make me wonder…) However, it is clear from events in history that we need ethical guidelines to protect participants and that these guidelines should be reviewed often to keep up with the areas and techniques in research. Otherwise we risk becoming so caught up with making scientific progress that we risk damaging people and damaging our field.


Really, there was too much history and too much content for me to possibly include it all so here are some extra links that you might find interesting: (related to no. 2 on the above listverse entry) (some light relief after all this ethics stuff)


Leave a comment


  1. I really enjoyed this blog, you clearly put a lot of time and effort into it. The amount of research you have is fantastic, especially all the links to further reading on ethics. You’re structure is great, you make your points very clearly and link them in well with what you say next. The one thing I can criticize is that you should have put a link to what Neil from The Inbetweeners said, as not everyone will have seen the movie, or may not remember what he said. Apart from that it’s fantastic 🙂

  2. Very good blog entry, obvious how much time you put into it and very extensive.

    I think whilst you discussed ethical guidelines, how they came about and why people just can’t use common sense (which is always my biggest debate when discussing ethics!) it would have been nice for you to include how ethics can sometimes hinder research. For example if as strict ethical guidelines were in place back in the 60’s Milgram’s experiment would never have taken place, a study that proved to be very useful an insightful.

    But awesome blog and the fact you managed to get the inbetweeners into a blog about statistics – Genius! 🙂

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