Talk About Research Ethics

In our interviews or experiments, might suffer from physical and psychological “damages”, whether minor or major.

Maffee Wan Jun 2022 · 10 min. read


You might want to ask – what is Research Ethics? In our line of work, we study human behavior, which means we do experiments on or with human. Has it every occur to you that the subjects, also known as participant, in our interviews or experiments, might suffer from physical and psychological “damages”, whether minor or major.

Of course, if most of our studies, it is unlikely that the participants would get impacted, whether physically or psychologically, within or after the interviews/experiments. However, in some studies, in particular psychology, behavior, or medical-related studies, research ethics is playing an important role.

I am going to share two “famous” examples in the domain or research ethics, the Little Albert experiment in 1920 and the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971.

The Little Albert Experiment

The Little Albert Experiment was conducted in 1920 by John Broadus Watson and his student Rosalie Rayner, at Johns Hopkins University. It was a controlled experiment showing classical conditioning in humans. As the name “Little Albert” revealed, the participant in this study were children.

he aim of Watson and Rayner was to condition a phobia in an emotionally stable child. For this study, they chose a nine-month old infant from a hospital. The baby was referred to as “Albert” for the experiment.

Before the experiment, Albert was given a set of baseline tests. He was exposed, briefly and for the first time, to a white rat, a rabbit, a dog, a monkey, masks (with and without hair), cotton, wool, burning newspapers, and other stimuli. Albert showed no fear of any of these items during the baseline tests.

While Albert was 11 months old, he was put on a mattress on a table in the middle of a room. A white lab rat was placed near Albert and he was allowed to play with it. At this point, the researchers made a loud sound behind Albert's back by striking a suspended steel bar with a hammer each time the baby touched the rat. Albert responded to the noise by crying and showing fear.

After several such pairings of the two stimuli, Albert was presented with only the rat. Upon seeing the rat, Albert became very distressed, crying and crawling away. In further experiments, Little Albert seemed to generalize his response to the white rat. He became distressed at the sight of other furry objects, such as a rabbit, a furry dog, and even a Santa Claus mask with white cotton balls in the beard.

There are many subsequent studies discussing whether the Little Albert experiment is a well-designed experiment and whether such conditional fear can be removed or reversed. What we want to discuss today is not the academic results of the experiment, but as we said in the beginning of the article – the research ethics. Albert was about one year old at the end of the experiment, and he reportedly left the hospital shortly thereafter. It is thought likely that the infant's fear of furry things continued post-experimentally. In short, the researchers take away the joy while a kid seeing Santa Claus but replacing the joy as fear, in the name of doing experiments.

[One of a series of published stills taken from film of the experiment]

The Little Albert Experiment no doubt violates the ethics of doing researches. One may argue or think that perhaps the research ethics only matters more for doing studies on minors because we adults are less likely to be manipulated or impacted by “experiments”. Well, let’s look at another example.

Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment was an experiment to examine the effects of situational variables on participants’ reactions and behaviors in a prison environment in 1971. The study was originally designed for two weeks and conducted by the psychology profession Philip Zimbardo in Stanford University.

The official website of the SPE describes the experiment goal as follows:

"We wanted to see what the psychological effects were of becoming a prisoner or prison guard. To do this, we decided to set up a simulated prison and then carefully note the effects of this institution on the behavior of all those within its walls."

Professor Zimbardo’s primary reason for conducting the experiment was to focus on the power of roles, rules, symbols, group identity and situational validation of behavior that generally would repulse ordinary individuals.

Male students were recruited from the local community with an ad in the newspapers with an incentive of $15 per day to participate in a "psychological study of prison life." Participants were then randomly assigned to being prisoners or prison guards after assessments of psychological stability.

• Set up - Saturday, August 14th: The small mock prison cells were set up, and the participants who had been assigned a guard role attended an orientation where they were briefed and given uniforms.

• Day 1 - Sunday, August 15th: The participants who had been assigned a prisoner role were mock-arrested by the local Palo Alto police as a surprise. Prisoners wore uncomfortable, ill-fitting smocks without any underwear and stocking caps, as well as a chain around one ankle. Guards were instructed to call prisoners by their assigned numbers, instead of by name, thereby dehumanizing prisoners.

[Arrest of prisoner-roles participants]

• Day 2 - Monday, August 16th: At 2:30 am the prisoners rebelled against guards' wake up calls of whistles and clanging of batons. Prisoners refused to leave their cells to eat in the yard, ripped off their inmate number tags, took off their stocking caps and insulted the guards. In response, guards sprayed fire extinguishers at the prisoners to reassert control.

• Day 3 - Tuesday, August 17th: Guards were allowed to abuse their power to humiliate the inmates. They had the prisoners count off and do pushups arbitrarily, restricted access to the bathrooms, and forced them to relieve themselves in a bucket in their cells.

[Prisoners in bed in cell]

• Day 4 - Wednesday, August 18th: Witnessing that guards divide prisoners based on their good or rebellious behavior, the inmates started to distance themselves from one another. One prisoner began showing symptoms of distress: he began crying in his cell. A priest was brought in to speak with him, but he declined to talk and instead asked for a medical doctor. After hearing him cry, Zimbardo removed him from the experiment. When he was leaving, the guards cajoled the remaining inmates to loudly and repeatedly decry that "He is a bad prisoner”.

[Prisoner broke down]

• Day 5 - Thursday, August 19th: The day was scheduled for visitations by friends and family of the inmates in order to simulate the real prison experience. Zimbardo and the guards made visitors wait for long periods of time to see their loved ones. Only two visitors could see any one prisoner and only for just ten minutes while a guard watched. Parents grew concerned about their sons' wellbeing and whether they had enough to eat. Some parents left with plans to contact lawyers to gain early release of their children. On the same day, professor Christina Maslach also visited the prison that night, and was distressed by observing the guards abusing the prisoners, forcing them to wear bags over their heads.

• Day 6 - Friday, August 19th Due to Maslach's objections, the parents' concerns, and the increasing brutality exhibited by guards in the experiment, Zimbardo ended the study on day 6.


Similar to Little Albert Experiment, criticism regarding whether the methodology of the Stanford Prison Experiment meets the criteria to be a scientific experiment has continued long after the experiment ended. More importantly, this experiment has raised academia’s concerns regarding Research Ethics.

The Stanford Prison Experiment has often been referenced and critiqued as one of the most unethical psychology experiments in history. The harm inflicted on the participants prompted universities worldwide to improve their ethics requirements for human subjects experiments to prevent them from being similarly harmed.

The Stanford Prison Experiment led to the implementation of rules to preclude any harmful treatment of participants. Before the experiments are implemented, human studies must now be reviewed by an Institutional Review Board (US) ( or similar organizations like Ethics Committee in different countries (伦理委员会 in China) and found to be in accordance with ethical guidelines set by the American Psychological Association or British Psychological Society. These guidelines involve the consideration of whether the potential benefit to science outweighs the possible risk for physical and psychological harm.

The pre-experiment approval via IRB or Ethics Committee might not have become a mandatory process in China yet. But in the line of a researcher, we do studies on/with human subjects on a day-to-day basis. It is critical to keep the Research Ethics in mind when we conduct studies in the future.

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