Ethical Limits

In highly nonreactive research, the subjects or participants are not aware of being the objects of research. They are not aware of person(s) or installations recording data related to themselves. They may not be aware that others in their proximity or those who are able to observe them by using technical equipment or reading the traces of behavior are in the positions of scientist, experimenter, or confederate. Consequently, they are unable to refuse their participation. This fact has been discussed with respect to ethical considerations, and we will discuss these referring to the ethical principles of psychologists and the code of conduct of the APA (American Psychological Association; APA, 2002). In other national scientific associations we find more or less similar formulations. Because the APAs standards were recently revised, we will concentrate on these in this chapter.

At a first glance, nonreactive research contradicts principle 3.10 "Informed Consent," which states: "When psychologists conduct research [. . .] they obtain the informed consent of the individual or individuals [. . .]." (p. 1065). Also principle 4.03 "Recording" seems to be violated: "Before recording the voices or images of individuals to whom they provide services, psychologists obtain permission [. . .]". However, principle 3.10 continues "except when conducting such activities without consent is mandated by law or governmental regulation or as otherwise provided in this Ethics Code." Referring to formulations in Part 8 (Research and Publication of the ethical principles), the term otherwise hence legitimizes research activities without consent.

Because formulations 8.03, 8.05, 8.07, and 8.08 are of particular interest with respect to nonreactive research, they are cited nearly in full length:

8.03 Informed Consent for Recording Voices and Images in Research. Psychologists obtain informed consent from research participants prior to recording their voices or images for data collec tion unless (1) the research consists solely of naturalistic observations in public places, and it is not anticipated that the recording will be used in a manner that could cause personal identification or harm, or (2) the research design includes deception, and consent for the use of the recording is obtained during debriefing.

8.05 Dispensing With Informed Consent for Research. Psychologists may dispense with informed consent only (1) where research would not reasonably be assumed to create distress or harm and involves . . . (b) only anonymous questionnaires, naturalistic observations, or archival research for which disclosure of responses would not place participants at risk of criminal or civil liability or damage their financial standing, employability, or reputation, and confidentiality is protected. . . .

8.07 Deception in Research, (a) Psychologists do not conduct a study involving deception unless they have determined that the use of deceptive techniques is justified by the study's significant prospective scientific, educational, or applied value and that effective nondeceptive alternative procedures are not feasible. . . . (c) Psychologists explain any deception that is an integral feature of the design and conduct of an experiment to participants as early as is feasible, preferably at the conclusion of their participation, but no later than at the conclusion of the data collection, and permit participants to withdraw their data.

8.08 Debriefing, (a) Psychologists provide a prompt opportunity for participants to obtain appropriate information about the nature, results, and conclusions of the research, and they take reasonable steps to correct any misconceptions that participants may have of which the psychologists are aware, (b) If scientific or humane values justify delaying or withholding this information, psychologists take reasonable measures to reduce the risk of harm, (c) When psychologists become aware that research procedures have harmed a participant, they take reasonable steps to minimize the harm.


As we can see, the formulations are rather comprehensive. We find an explicit reference to naturalistic observations that is not yet the case in the ethical standards of other national psychological associations. The principles allow nonreactive research of Types 4 and 5 even without debriefing (8.08) where some criteria are met, for example, preventing personal identification or harm (8.03:1) and the risk of criminal or civil liability or damaging the participants' financial standing, employabil-ity, or reputation, and confidentiality (8.05:b). Deception, which might be included in nonreactive methods from Types 1 to 4, is only accepted as an exception when explicitly justified (8.07:a) and when consent for the use of the recording is obtained during debriefing (8.03:2 and 8.07:c).

With respect to our discussion of various nonreactive measures, we realize that the scientific community has developed principles for highly responsible conduct in observations, in laboratory settings, and in field experiments. This includes reporting to ethic commissions as well as consulting peers. Ethical standards are continuously reviewed. As researchers facing the continued development of nonreactive methods in particular, the necessity to continue this effort is evident.

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