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.