Ninth Edition CoverGraziano & Raulin
Research Methods (9th edition)

Ethical Considerations in
the Dark-Fears Study

In our hypothetical study of children who fear darkness, the children are exposed to the very conditions that may be frightening to them: darkness and fearful images. This raises ethical concerns of placing the participants at risk for potential harm.

What are the major concerns? First, the participants are children. As such, they are presumed to be unable to understand the implications of the research and, therefore, are unable to give informed consent. The standard ethical guidelines assume that children, by virtue of being under the age of consent, are automatically participants at risk in any research. Therefore, steps must be taken by the researcher to reduce risks. One obvious safeguard is to obtain the informed consent of the children’s parents, who presumably will be able to understand the situation and make a reasonable decision.

Another issue is whether the children want to participate. It is inappropriate to coerce a child's participation. Thus, the ethical researcher will try to obtain the children’s assent to participate by explaining the procedure to them and asking whether they want to take part. If a child says no or shows reluctance, the researcher must interpret that as a lack of assent. Further, in obtaining consent and assent, the researcher should give a full account of the procedures, provide ample opportunity for questions, and answer all questions. Parents and children should also have the opportunity to ask more questions and to seek explanations after the conclusion of the experiment.

With parental informed consent and the child’s assent included in the research procedure, the researcher must then consider other possible risks to the participant, such as undue anxiety and other psychological upset due to the procedures. For example, the children should be assured from the start that they may stop the procedure whenever they wish. Also, researchers and assistants should be sufficiently experienced with children to observe whether a child is becoming unduly upset so they can (1) soothe and reassure the child and/or (2) make a reasoned decision to discontinue the procedure for that child. All children should be carefully debriefed to minimize the child's discomfort. Researchers should design the procedures to minimize distress and only those procedures essential for the study should be used.

Finally, there is an ethical issue that bears directly on the adequacy of the experimental design itself: It is the responsibility of the researcher to assure that the study is competently designed and carried out so that there can be a high degree of confidence in results and conclusions. Why is this an ethical issue and not just a design issue? Because it is the researcher’s responsibility to ensure that participants’ time, effort, expectations, and risk taking, however minimal, are given in an effort that will likely yield knowledge. The researcher must ensure that participants do not make contributions to a research project that is poorly designed and from which little knowledge can be gained. Participants’ contributions must not be trivialized and wasted by an incompetent design.

Can you see other potential risks for the participants in our experiment? If so, how would you reduce them?