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  • Why investigate? Part 12: Ethics in research

    Lara Carballo
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    Ethics in medical science have been borne out of practices that occurred during the second world war, with the Nuremberg code being set up to prevent unethical experimentation on humans from being carried out. 

    This was further supported by the Declaration of Helsinki that strengthened the protection of participants within medical research by setting out the stipulations that informed consent should be obtained before research. It ensured that data should be kept confidential so that medical research that ultimately requires input from human participants would be able to be carried out with minimal risk to the individual. 

    Lara Carballo continues the 'Why investigate' blog series with a cautionary tale of why within Human Factors it is necessary to ensure that ethics are in place before embarking on research.


    Once upon a time there was a little boy. Let’s call him Albert. Little Albert had grown up in the hospitals until one day, when he was just 9 months of age, he was taken by a couple who gave him lots of interesting and friendly objects to play with. One by one, Albert was shown bunnies, puppies and little white rats amongst other fascinating objects. He was intrigued by these soft play things and enjoyed exploring the shapes and textures that were new to the enquiring infant.

    One day as he was about to play with his favourite rat, Houdini (poetic licence employed here), there came from behind him a loud and frightening crash like the sound of metal being struck. The shock made him cry but he soon calmed as the noise died away. He settled to play with Houdini again. But once more, as he reached to pick him up from the cold wooden floor, the child was alarmed by the same loud clang. This happened again and again until eventually whenever Houdini was placed near to him, he began to cry with fear. His beloved pet and ally had now become an object of terror. 

    The worst thing about this tale, is that it isn’t a tale at all. Instead, it is part of a regrettable body of research carried out by a very real couple of psychologists, John Watson and Rosalie Rayner, who wished to establish how phobias were formed. 

    This study is very much set in a specific time before formalised codes of practice and ethics were formed. It is work that would thankfully not be possible to carry out in current times. In accordance with current UK ethics, such as the British Psychological Society’s ethical code (BPS 2018), this study would have been able to have been prevented on several grounds.  The BPS guidelines require four principles to be followed:

    • respect
    • competence
    • responsibility
    • integrity.

    Amongst these principles, there are at least four issues that would be able to protect future participants in research from ever being treated in the way which befell Little Albert. Researchers now are required to:

    • respect participants’ dignity
    • not share identifiable personal details
    • remain aware of the wellbeing of the participant
    • ensure that they do not abuse their potentially perceived position of power.

    Watson and Rayner did none of these things. They certainly did not treat Little Albert in such a way that his dignity remained intact. In addition, they carried out research on a child (for which a whole extra section of ethical guidelines exists). However, this child is now known to have been ill from the outset and they caused additional emotional harm that was never able to be erased. This highlights the abuse of a position of power, and the very fact that researchers now are able to narrow down the true identity of Little Albert brings into question the details that were added to their original report.

    This unfortunately true not-so-fairy-tale is an example of why we need an ethical framework when designing research. In some ways now, it feels like second nature; it’s surely logical to treat others with respect? Sadly these guidelines were unable to help Little Albert, but because of him and others like him, we have learnt and listened. His sad demise will serve to protect those that come after him.

    Read the other blogs in this series

    About the Author

    Lara Carballo is a PhD researcher at Coventry University, with a background in Human Factors research and adult social care. Her research examines fitness to drive in older adults. Lara is also interested in the responsibility of research and the importance of ethics.

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