Could the process of gaining informed consent be changed?

25 Mar

This was inspired by one of the second years POPPS prepared speeches the other week. He concluded his speech with an idea I had never previously heard given on the topic of informed consent and that was this, though important it doesn’t necessarily need to be gained before the participant takes part in the study rather the study could be conducted using deception and the participant then gives their consent after the study has been done and the true aims of the study have been revealed during debriefing. This got me thinking is this possible? Is informed consent really there for the participant to say yes you can use my data or is it there for the protection of the participant? My conclusion? Well that’s what this blog is about.

On one hand you have the argument that as long as you thoroughly debrief the participant after the study has been conducted then it doesn’t really matter. Let’s take the classic debate topic in psychology- Milgram. In his study Milgram purposely deceived his participant, without the use of deception his study findings would have a) been completely different and b) been completely useless! Of the former participants from Milgrams original study 84% of them were glad or very glad to have taken part in the study. Milgrams study is possibly one of the most controversial studies to have been done (Zimbardo being another of course) and if the participants of that study felt that the stress of the study was totally worth the personal awakening they had (one participant became a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war because of what he learnt from taking part in the study) then there must be some merit to his methods. Yes the study was stressful for the participants (they believed they were actually giving electric shocks to another person) however the public and personal advancement that came as a result would not have happened had the ethical guidelines been in place at the time. This would have been a great misfortune for both the psychological field and the participants themselves.

Then on the other hand is the argument against the idea that the benefits outweigh the costs of an experiment. The purpose of informed consent is to brief the participant on what exactly the study entails so that they are aware of the possible risks that they are making themselves vulnerable to if they take part in the study. If informed consent is taken out of the mix then the participant has no way of protecting themselves from research that could negatively affect them, a role that only they themselves can perform as they are the only ones that know their emotional limits. If informed consent is no longer used then where is the line drawn for ethics to go out the window in the name of the research? How can you dismiss one ethical guideline for the advancement of psychological knowledge? Will there be a time when it’s deemed acceptable to get rid of other ethical guidelines eg: right to withdraw, right to confidentiality in the name of research?

In conclusion the stance you take on this really depends on how you view informed consent. If you see it as a super important protection of rights then you probably will think that the idea of gathering informed consent after the experiment is ridiculous (I’m not saying this is the wrong stance to take on the issue by the way). In my opinion? I think that it could be viable for some kinds of research. I think that as psychologists in research the standard of debriefing should be high and I think as such it should totally cover any stress or effects of research the participant may encounter. Therefore for me, in research where a degree of deception is needed to benefit knowledge then such a process of informed consent should be considered. Of course this doesn’t mean that the idea should be abused by use of excessively harmful levels of deception, this however could all be decided by a committee beforehand to see whether or not they believe the use of deception justifies the possible outcomes and advancements the study could provide just as is done to ensure that psychological research doesn’t harm participants.


4 Responses to “Could the process of gaining informed consent be changed?”

  1. tsheath March 28, 2012 at 7:36 pm #

    This is a really good blog. I personally feel that informed consent is a crucial role in an experiment as the participant is able to have a grasp of what the experiment is about without knowing exactly what it is concerning. However sometimes it is not always possible to gain informed consent. To make this acceptable the researcher has to make sure that what happens to the participant is something that could easily happen to them during their everyday life. For instance, in a field study when the research involves observing people on a golf course.


  2. psue76 April 16, 2012 at 7:39 pm #

    I think informed consent can be given at the end of the study as it would comprise the results if the participant knew what the experiment was about if they were told at the beginning. For example, if you observe behaviour, participants will know they are being watched and therefore will change their behaviour (demand characteristics), this would invalidate the results as researchers are not measuring the true behaviour. Perhaps if researchers were to inform the participant that they would be deceived for the purpose of the experiment but would be given a full debrief after the experiment then the choice could be left up to the participant to decide whether they wish to continue. As you mention above, the right to withdraw is for everyone taking part in the study, therefore in Milgram’s study, the participants had the right to leave at any time but they still continued to take part and as you say they majority were happy to be involved. Even in Zimbardo’s study, the right to withdraw was shown as one prisoner participant left because they did not wish to continue. In Zimbardo’s study, the male participants volunteered and knew that the experiment would be based on the effects of prison life, therefore even with informed consent at the beginning, participants still suffered from emotional harm.
    I think that so long as an experiment is ethical and there is no risk to the participant, then informed consent can be given at the end of the study.

  3. ln1992 April 18, 2012 at 1:22 pm #

    I really enjoyed this blog it is a really interesting subject. I have been studying psychology for 3 years now and informed consent has always been the norm, every experiment should use it and nobody should ever question that. So to see another take on the idea of informed consent is interesting. I think that giving informed consent after the experiment could be really useful for many researchers as deception would be more easier and the results would be more valid and reliable. However I think that if psychologist begin to give informed consent after the experiment more emphasis needs to be placed on their right to withdraw. Many participants feel that although their right exists they cant. I have been sat in many experiments and thought to myself allow I have to right to leave I don’t think I could. Therefore I think that the researcher would need to explain that it is totally fine if the participant does not want to continue with the study. This way if any participants felt they were suffering from stress or they felt they had been deceived and were not comfortable with that then they could leave whenever the feel necessary. Both methods of gaining informed consent work therefore I believe that it should be down to the researcher depending on what best suits their study.

  4. sigmafreud April 18, 2012 at 4:41 pm #

    Informed consent, as it is at the present, is the ethical requirement that the participant is given enough information about the proposed experiment that they can make an informed decision about whether or not to take part. If this most basic requirement is not met, serious ethical issues arise. As you mention, Milgram breached this requirement, with the deception of his participants. Of course, this deception was necessary. If the participant had been told that the experiment involved the use of confederates then the “true” results would be jeopardized.
    The argument you uphold about the benefits of Milgram’s study are justified. (Additionally, such an experiment simply could not be conducted in today’s contemporary environment.) However, there is always the question whether such benefits truly merit the justification of the experiment. Luckily, most of the participants were glad they took part, but the possibility that serious psychological/physical harm to the participants was certainly present. Did the benefits outweigh the costs? We can never be truly certain. Milgram’s results and their implications can never be truly quantified; where would the field of social psychology be without it? Much research was conducted on the back of Milgram’s study.
    (Conversely, ethical guidelines are in place for a reason. Regardless whether they severely restrict the research which can be conducted as a result of their implementation.)
    Informed consent, and debriefing form a vital role in the protection of participants. Often, taking consent after the experiment can be too late.
    Needless to say, informed consent is vital to the conducted research and to the participant themselves.

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