The investigator protects the participant from physical and mental discomfort, harm, and danger that may arise from research procedures. If the risks of such consequences exist, the investigator informs the participant of that fact. Research procedures likely to cause serious or lasting harm to a participant are not used unless the failure to use these procedures might expose the participant to risk of even greater harm or unless the research has great potential benefit and fully informed and voluntary consent is obtained from each participant. The participant should be informed of procedures for contacting the investigator within a reasonable time period following participation should stress, potential harm, or related questions or concerns arise. (APA, 1982, p. 6)
Some important research questions require that participants be exposed to situations in which there is the potential for physical or psychological discomfort, or even harm. The decision to continue with this research is made only after a thorough search for less risky alternative procedures. In the rare cases for which there are no alternatives, full technical and ethical consultation is mandatory (see Principle A). In particular, consultation should occur with persons more concerned with the well-being of the participants rather than with the research outcome. The variety and extent of the dangers must be carefully determined (see Principle B). Greater sensitivity to issues of informed consent (see Principle D and freedom from coercion (see Principle F is required of the investigator, along with an increased obligation to take special measures to remove any undesirable consequences from having partaken in the study (see Principle I).
Examples of physical discomfort employed in psychological experiments include electric shocks, loud noises, unpleasant tastes, extreme temperatures, and food deprivation. Examples of mental discomfort include situations in which a person experiences failure, the temptation to cheat, exposure to erotic materials, and questions of a personal nature.
To avoid or minimize the infliction of physical or mental discomfort on human participants, the investigator should consider some of the following possibilities. First, employ nonhumans as participants if equally valid results could be obtained by doing so. Second, consider taking advantage of naturally occurring conditions so as not to add to persons' suffering. For example, rather than inflicting pain in order to study ways of alleviating it, employ as participants persons already suffering from, say, chronic headaches. Or, similarly with stress, study persons in unavoidable stressful situations, such as patients waiting in a dental office or students in class waiting to take a test. Third, in applied research, where the experimental "treatment" is intended to benefit participants, should a control group be required for comparison purposes, contemplate exposing them to the best known intervention. In this way, deprivation for control group participants is minimized. Fourth, closely monitor the participant for signs of distress, and provide continued reassurance to the participant that he or she is free to withdraw at any time. Finally, inflict the lowest magnitude of discomfort possible to answer the research question.
In any research requiring that participants experience some sort of physical or mental discomfort, the investigator is obligated to take special safety precautions. In the case of electric shock, for example,
[t]he investigators and any assistant should be thoroughly familiar with the physical and physiological factors involved in electric shocks and with the particular apparatus used. They must ensure that the equipment is in a state that precludes dangerous shock levels. Moreover, the investigators must ascertain that the participants do not suffer from any special conditions that would make the levels of shocks to be used in any way dangerous to them. Also, the investigators must consider emergencies that might arise and make appropriate preparations to deal with them. (APA, 1982, p. 55)
As suggested in the quote above, screening should also be considered in some cases. The investigator needs to be aware of conditions making the physical or mental discomfort a greater risk for some persons and to weed out and exclude those persons from being participants in the study.
While conducting a literature search for her research, Sally comes across evidence to suggest that extremely shy children are likely to be traumatized when approached by an adult stranger. Following up this lead, she reads several articles reporting a psychometric test that does an excellent job of identifying children with this handicap (estimated at about 5% of the population). Sally considers employing the test to screen for susceptible children so that they can be disqualified from participating, but she rejects this option based on three considerations. First, her research funds are limited, and she cannot afford the costs of administering and scoring the "shyness" test. Second, this would add to the time to complete the study, and she is working on a deadline. Third, by including all 1st grade children at the school in her study she would have a larger, more representative sample. In the end, Sally decides to take her chances; but, as a safeguard measure, she makes special arrangements with the school counselor, who agrees to see any child who may be negatively affected as a result of partaking in the study. Three of the participants are traumatized by their encounter with the stranger in the schoolyard and are referred to the school counselor. Several sessions over the course of 3 weeks are required before they are deemed "recovered" from their ordeal.
While conducting a literature search for her research, Sally comes across evidence to suggest that extremely shy children are likely to be traumatized when approached by an adult stranger. Following up this lead, she reads several articles reporting a psychometric test that does an excellent job of identifying children with this handicap (estimated at about 5% of the population). Sally considers employing the test to screen for susceptible children so that they can be disqualified from participating. The cons of screening are threefold. First, her research funds are limited, and she cannot afford the costs of administering and scoring the "shyness" test. Second, this would add to the time to complete the study, and she is working on a deadline. Third, by including all 1st grade children at the school in her study she would have a larger, more representative sample. In the end, though, to avoid a likely trauma for extremely shy children - although their number may be small - Sally decides to administer the screening test. To offset the costs, Sally's subject pool consists of two, instead of all four, 1st grade classes at the school. Three children are classified as "extremely shy" based on their test scores. They view the video with the rest of their class, but they are not exposed to the Generalization Probe.
In the first item, Sally could be criticized for not protecting participants from harm, even though only a few of them would be susceptible to it. The research of which she was aware indicated that 5% of her participants were "likely" to be traumatized by the encounter with the confederate. Nevertheless, she chose to deal with this issue after the fact (i.e., the arrangement with the school counselor) based on considerations other than the participants' welfare. Sally may save costs, meet her deadline, and have a more representative sample, but all this comes at the big expense of traumatizing three children to the extent that they require several sessions of counseling.
In the second item, by administering the test to screen for susceptible participants, Sally sacrifices aspects of her research design in order to protect them from harm. To work within her budget and meet her deadline, her sample size is 50% smaller, and it is less representative because it does not include extremely shy children. This new design will reduce the power of any statistical test that she runs and will limit her study's external validity. But, in return, she has saved three children from a confrontation that would likely have been a devastating experience for them.