Volume 90, Issue 86

Friday, March 07, 1997



Ethics in psychology a concern

Re: Ethics

To the Editor:

This letter is addressed to the entire Western community (students, faculty, administration, staff and alumni). In the Feb. 6 issue of The Western News the issue of ethics was addressed. A proposed national code of ethical conduct for researchers working with human subjects has received much criticism. This is an important issue. I feel this campus requires an extensive debate on the issue. My comments specifically regard ethics as applied to research and study in psychology. In particular, I wish to address the work of J.B. Watson with "little Albert."

In this experiment, which was filmed, a little boy, aged 11 months, was conditioned to fear a tame white rabbit. The film is quite horrific. Even today this material is presented to psychology students and often the reaction of students is laughter. I don't know if it is nervous laughter or more rooted in a lack of compassion. I challenge people in psychology on the issue of this work as an example of classical conditioning. If anything, it should be used as an example of completely unethical research.

Let me make the comparison between Dr. Watson and Dr. Mengel of Nazi Germany. I certainly do not wish to minimize in any way the horrors of the Holocaust which is on a scale all by itself for its unbelievable inhumanity. Much debate has surrounded Dr. Mengel's experiments, particularly regarding submerging victims in freezing water to see how long they lived – supposedly to determine the survivability of pilots who crashed in the cold waters of the North Sea). The strong argument against using the data is it would devalue the lives of the victims and no data acquired unethically should be published or used. Otherwise, future unethical experiments could be encouraged. Surely this argument applies to Watson's work. I therefore submit a three-point standard for ethical behaviour and hope it generates debate on campus:

1. No physical or psychological harm should be inflicted on another human.

2. No lying – always tell the truth (not necessarily all the truth).

3. No stealing – both material goods and intellectual ideas.

Des Stutchbury
BA, Psychology '94

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Copyright The Gazette 1997