The Dilemma of Ethics in Psychological Research

I am in the process of completing a social psychology research project looking at the social consequences of first impressions through a series of questionnaires and scales. In my research, I use a series of well known measures including the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, shortened versions of the Positive and Negative Affect Scale, and the UCLA Loneliness Scale. When building the the questionnaires in the online software, we considered using a depression scale, which has items that question participant’s suicidality.

After submitting a version of our questionnaire to the Research Ethics Board, we were told this was unethical because we did not possess the resources to follow up with and attend to a participant who indicate feeling suicidal. When I heard this, I was a bit perplexed. It is true that receiving indications of suicidality obligates us to act. It is also true, however, that we do not have the resources nor ability to assume responsibility for treating participants. It seems, however, unethical to avoid this question and in a sense, remain blissfully ignorant to the possibility of a McGill student needing immediate and serious attention. By rejecting the very item on our scale, we (the REB and ourselves), chose to metaphorically stick our heads in the sand. This approach seems to counter the point of psychology and research- to seek answers and data and treat mental distress.

I do not have a particularly feasible alternative, as I will reiterate I agree that we are not equipped to address the suicidal subject that may reveal him or herself, but I think it is an interesting moral dilemma. Is it more ethical to ignore the possibility of a community member in imminent danger in order to avoid culpability? Or is it more ethical to ask the question and risk receiving an answer to which we are both obligated to and unable to adequately respond? My conclusion is that this is a fundamental dilemma in psychological testing. While the goal is to accurately and completely assess a certain measure, the results may call for actions or responses that may exceed the skills of the questioner. This is an important aspect of psychological measurement that is crucial to consider when designing scales. It may be best to leave scales that may provide such important responses to those who can and will address the issue.


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