Psychology, ethics and practice

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Introduction by Dr Tony Wainwright, Guest Editor:

Work by psychologists on questions of morality and ethics has a long history. In looking through the online collection of research across the British Psychological Society Journals I was impressed by the range and scope of this work. The selection I have made illustrates the different approaches in terms of both theory and experiment that has characterized this field.
An early example of how psychology, as distinct from traditional approaches in philosophy, tackles these issues by collecting data is illustrated by G.A. Johnston’s work on moral judgment (Johnston, 1925) . Today experimental philosophy and moral psychology are coming together to apply data collection approaches which were pioneered by psychologists like Johnston.
My second choice is by Raymond Cattell (Cattell, 1950), better known perhaps for his work on personality. This entertaining paper describes the importance of considering values in the work we undertake and the dilemmas we face when we try and do this. While you may well disagree with some of his debating points, the discussion has a contemporary feel about it and is a very good read.
Philip Ley’s short paper (Ley, 1981) deals with the topic of professional non-compliance. A lot has been written about why patients do not take their pills properly (non compliance as it was known) but much less about professionals themselves. He developed a simple typology of compliance, which is still useful today. The issues raised by fraud and unethical behavior in many professional contexts, including psychology, were foreshadowed in Ley’s analysis.
In the words of a colleague Sir Cyril Burt divides opinion between the forgiving and the unforgiving. The paper I have selected (Butler & Petrulis, 1999) reflects on what was known about one aspect of his work which was thought to be fraudulent and is an example of how careful examination of the data presented in a published paper can give a clue to whether the researcher is faking or not. A special issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology is planned to review Burt’s overall legacy.
Stanley Milgram’s famous or infamous (depending on your point of view) experiments on obedience to authority divide people as in the Burt legacy above, and poses the ethical dilemma of whether deceiving participants in psychology experiments can be justified by a greater good. Nestor Russell (Russell, 2011) has gone back to the Milgram archives to find out how these experiments were conceived and the rationale for them and provides a fascinating commentary on how ethical dilemmas have been managed (or not) in the psychological experiments.
Stephen Reicher and Alex Haslam’s work and those who work in the field of social identity have produced many important insights into human behavior. This paper describes the BBC prison study (Reicher & Haslam, 2006), which takes a hard look at how tyranny can develop. These topics are not pleasant but in teaching about ethics it is vital that we understand that good human beings can behave very badly. Their point is that when bad things happen, morality has not gone for a walk, it is often the driver of the behavior.

My next selection is a paper which describes the use of an assessment method, the Defining Issues Test (DIT), which was developed by James Rest, one of the coauthors (Barnett, Evens, & Rest, 1995). The DIT has been used very successfully in education to see whether students gain in ethical ability through training (not always) and here it is used to see how people with different political views frame ethical choices.

The final paper by James Miles is a broadside at the work in social psychology trying to tackle the so called ‘hard problems’ in philosophy (Miles, 2011). The hard case in point is whether we have free will/free choice or not. The question is important as it has implications for moral responsibility, and according to some studies, whether you believe in it or not has implications for attitudes to poverty or other social ills. The vigorous reply to Miles by Vonasch and Baumeister (Vonasch & Baumeister, 2012) takes him on and it is a good example of how science works well by active debate.

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Published: 14 Mar 2013


Edited by: G. A. JOHNSTON

  • DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8295.1925.tb00180.x
  • Published Date: April 13, 2011

Published in: British Journal of Psychology - Volume 15 Issue 3 (January 1925)



  • DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8295.1950.tb00258.x
  • Published Date: April 13, 2011

Published in: British Journal of Psychology - Volume 41 Issue 1‐2 (September 1950)

Professional non‐compliance: A neglected problem Journal Article

Edited by: Philip Ley

  • DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8260.1981.tb00512.x
  • Published Date: July 12, 2011

Published in: British Journal of Clinical Psychology - Volume 20 Issue 3 (September 1981)

Some further observations concerning Sir Cyril Burt Journal Article

Edited by: Brian E. Butler, Jennifer Petrulis

  • DOI: 10.1348/000712699161206
  • Published Date: December 24, 2010

Sir Cyril Burt was posthumously accused of fraud when it was noted that his 1966 paper on separated twins contained the same correlation values as his 1955 paper on twins, even though the sample sizes differed. We have found a new version of his 1955 paper which was reprinted in a book of readings but was ‘abridged and revised’ by Burt. The changes that Burt made in the reprinted paper make it difficult to determine when the extra twin...

Published in: British Journal of Psychology - Volume 90 Issue 1 (February 1999)

Milgram's obedience to authority experiments: Origins and early evolution Journal Article

Edited by: Nestar John Charles Russell

  • DOI: 10.1348/014466610X492205
  • Published Date: March 2, 2011

Stanley Milgram's Obedience to Authority experiments remain one of the most inspired contributions in the field of social psychology. Although Milgram undertook more than 20 experimental variations, his most (in)famous result was the first official trial run – the remote condition and its 65% completion rate. Drawing on many unpublished documents from Milgram's personal archive at Yale University, this article traces the historical...

Published in: British Journal of Social Psychology - Volume 50 Issue 1 (March 2011)

Rethinking the psychology of tyranny: The BBC prison study Journal Article

Edited by: S. Alexander Haslam, S. Alexander Haslam

  • DOI: 10.1348/014466605X48998
  • Published Date: January 12, 2011

This paper presents findings from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) prison study – an experimental case study that examined the consequences of randomly dividing men into groups of prisoners and guards within a specially constructed institution over a period of 8 days. Unlike the prisoners, the guards failed to identify with their role. This made the guards reluctant to impose their authority and they were eventually overcome by...

Published in: British Journal of Social Psychology - Volume 45 Issue 1 (March 2006)

Faking moral judgement on the Defining Issues Test Journal Article

Edited by: Robert Barnett, Jean Evens, James Rest

  • DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8309.1995.tb01063.x
  • Published Date: June 6, 2011

In research by Emler, Renwick & Malone (1983), elevated moral judgement scores obtained under altered test conditions were interpreted as evidence that moral reasoning and political attitudes are essentially the same and that self‐presentational strategies explain many differences in moral judgement that have previously been attributed to cognitive development. In the present study, politically liberal, moderate and conservative...

Published in: British Journal of Social Psychology - Volume 34 Issue 3 (September 1995)

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