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Ethics in Psychology Essay

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The definition of ethics is as follows: “a theory or system of moral values; the general nature of morals and of the specific moral choices to be made by a person”. (dictionary.com ) In modern day society, we have bio-ethicists; professionals who are trained to judge what can be considered ethical, as well as strict guidelines set forth by the APA (American Psychological Association). However, during the early years of the formation of Psychology, there were no bio-ethicists or universal guidelines, therefore some of the early experiments such as the “Little Albert”, and “Mother Attachment” would be considered unethical and therefore would not be permitted today.

In 1920, behaviorist John B. Watson and his assistant Rosalie Rayner conducted an experiment now called the “Little Albert”. The desired outcome of the experiment was to show empirical evidence of classical conditioning in humans. (T. Bartlett) A similar study that preceded “Little Albert” was conducted by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, which demonstrated the conditioning process in dogs. It is said that Watson wanted to continue and further Pavlov’s research to eventually show that emotional reactions could be classically conditioned in humans. Watson and Rayner first selected a nine month old baby from a local hospital, his name was Douglas Merritte.

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The child was then exposed to a series of stimuli including a white rat, a rabbit, a monkey, masks, and burning newspapers; his initial reactions were observed and recorded. The boy initially showed no fear of any of the objects he was shown. However, the second time the boy was exposed to the white rat, it is accompanied by a loud starling clang, that clearly frightens the child. This portion of the experiment is repeated multiple times until the mere sight of the white rat, or creatures that have a similar appearance, frighten the child even when unaccompanied by the startlingly clang. The researchers have successfully conditioned Little Albert to be afraid. (T. Bartlett)

Today “Little Albert” is considered to be a cruel experiment of questionable value, clearly in violation of all five of the APA’s general ethical guidelines. The APA states that psychologists must: “respect the dignity and worth of all people, and the rights of individuals to privacy, confidentiality, and self-determination. Be aware that special safeguards may be necessary to protect the rights and welfare of persons or communities whose vulnerabilities impair autonomous decision making. Be aware of and respect cultural, individual and role differences, including those based on age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language and socioeconomic status and consider these factors when working with members of such groups.

Try to eliminate the effect on their work of biases based on those factors, and they do not knowingly participate in or condone activities of others based upon such prejudices.”(APA) The first problem with “Little Albert” stems from the harm caused to the individual in question. Douglas Merritte was ultimately driven to feel extreme fear and even terror when exposed to anything that remotely resembled the white rat. This was mentally damaging for the child, and may have impaired his ability to integrate himself into society at a later date. (Cherry. K) Secondly, the right to withdraw was not present in the experiment; even when the boy became distressed and even ill the experiment continued. Therefore, today, the “Little Albert” experiment would be considered highly unethical.

During the 1960’s, American Psychologist Harry Harlow, conducted a series of controvertial experiments known as the “Mother Attachment Experiments”. These experiments were used to analyze the mother-child relationship in primates. In Harlow’s initial experiments, infant monkeys were separated from their mother’s shortly after birth and were raised instead by surrogate mothers made either wire or soft terry cloth. In one experiment both types of surrogates were present in the cage, but only one was equipped with the ability to nurse the infant. Some infants received nourishment from the wire surrogate, and others were fed from the cloth mother.

Harlow established that mother love was really behavior based, meaning the offspring would seek physical comfort, rather than feeding. Harlow’s isolation studies also demonstrated the need for maternal interaction with their infants and the importance of play as part of the normal process of psychosocial growth. Harlow has received multiple awards for these experiments, they have been deemed “of extreme significance for understanding those aspects of human behavior related to depression, aggression or sexual dysfunction, which originated in the formative years of mother-infant interaction.”(Theodore Lidz of Yale University Medical School). However, due to the fact that the experiments caused extreme psychological effects on the primates used in the trials, they could be seen as highly unethical. In the APA’s ethical principles of psychology, section 8.09 clearly states that psychologists must have a: Humane Care and Use of Animals in Research. Subsections B and D of section 8.09 are relevant when considering Harlow’s treatment of the primates.

Subsection B states: “Psychologists trained in research methods and experienced in the care of laboratory animals supervise all procedures involving animals and are responsible for ensuring appropriate consideration of their comfort, health and humane treatment” (APA). In the “Mother Attachment” experiments, Harlow himself was not trained in the research methods and experienced in the care of the primates, nor was there any consideration for their comfort or mental health after the experiment. Furthermore, subsection D states that: “Psychologists make reasonable efforts to minimize the discomfort, infection, illness and pain of animal subjects” (APA). Harlow failed to minimize the negative effects of his experiments on the primates in a long term setting; most primates involved in the study were clinically depressed after the termination and in some cases during the experiment.Therefore, in accordance to the APA’s ethical guidelines Harlow’s experiment would be seen as morally questionable and in most cases unethical in modern society.

There is no question that the science which is psychology has been built and greatly advanced through the means of what some would consider unethical means and experimentation. “Little Albert” is seen today as a cruel experiment of questionable value. However knowledge was gained from this “unethical” experiment that has helped modern day psychologists. The “Mother Attachment” experiments, have won multiple awards for their “extreme significance” (Theodore Lidz) in the analysis of behavior based on the mother-child relationship; despite the fierce criticism and controversy
surrounding the experiments. Should both experiments be considered morally wrong and unethical? Perhaps. Did both experiments play a large role in the advancement of psychology? Without a doubt. Therefore in Harlow and Watson’s cases, the end justifies the means.


American Psychological Association (APA). Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. Retrieved December 10, 2012, from http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/index.aspx?item=3

Bartlett, T. (2012). The Sad Saga of ‘Little Albert’ Gets Far Worse for a Researcher’s Reputation . Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. 58(Issue 23), A-26.

Cherry, K. Psychology – Complete Guide to Psychology for Students, Educators & Enthusiasts. Little Albert – The Little Albert Experiment. Retrieved December 10, 2012, from http://psychology.about.com/od/classicpsychologystudies/a/little-albert-experiment.htm

(1975). Honoring Harlow for dedicated research . Science News , Vol.107 (Issue 24), 383.

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