Principle I: Removing Negative Consequences

Where research procedures result in undesirable consequences for the individual participant, the investigator has the responsibility to detect and remove these consequences, including long-term effects. (APA, 1982, p. 7)


In rare cases, the nature of the research may negatively impact participants during and/or after the inquiry. Careful screening of susceptible participants can minimize this outcome. Still, if the investigator has reason to suspect this possibility for any participant, a statement about "normal" responses to the protocol should be included in the pre-investigation instructions and reiterated during debriefing. When undesirable consequences for the participant do occur, the investigator is obligated to take immediate corrective action and he or she should be competent to do so. For example, suppose a participant in a memory experiment is feeling very frustrated at performing poorly on a task. Rather than terminate the session as planned, an investigator with foresight may have on hand easier tasks for the person to complete afterwards, even though they do not figure into the data analysis; the session ends on a positive note and the person leaves feeling good. Should the participant's reaction be extreme, long-term follow-up may be needed. For example, a college student who feels very angry about being deceived, despite the best attempts of the investigator to calm and reassure the student during debriefing, may be accompanied to counseling services by the investigator for an emergency session. The investigator may later contact the counselor to inquire about the well-being of the student and offer continued assistance should it be required.

Many psychological studies require a control group for comparisons purposes. When the inquiry is designed to improve the well-being of persons, the investigator incurs a special obligation to participants in this group (who have no way of knowing of their "control" status). Persons volunteering for studies that claim to "treat" their condition undoubtedly expect to get better. To protect control group participants from harm (Principle G), earlier it was suggested that they be provided with the best known intervention rather than no intervention at all. If this is not possible and if the experimental treatment proves efficacious, then the investigator should ensure that control group participants are given access to the experimental treatment so that they too may profit. There is a related concern for the investigator. Participants who benefit from the experimental treatment may become dependent upon it to maintain their improvement and they may expect it to continue. When deciding for or against conducting the research, the investigator must anticipate such dependencies and expectations and take measures to reduce their likelihood; otherwise, there is the potential for harm when the inquiry is terminated.

Background Information

Violation Example

Informed consent is obtained from the parents of all participants. The study proceeds and is completed as planned. A few children in the experimental group (those who viewed the video designed to teach the self-protection skills) agree to go with the stranger in the schoolyard. Upon debriefing, they feel bad about having "failed the test." Later, a few of them express their feelings at home to their parents, who are at a loss about how best to respond to this type of distress. Several parents of the children in the control group (those who viewed the neutral video) feel cheated because their child did not get to see the video designed to teach important self-protection skills.

Non-Violation Example

Informed consent is obtained from the parents of all participants. Parents are warned that their child could feel bad if he or she agrees to go with the stranger in the schoolyard and later discovers that it was the "wrong thing" to do. Sally gives the parents her phone number so that they could contact her for help if there are signs of this or any other negative reaction by their child. To prevent children from being upset about "failing," a remedial step is included: those who do not respond to the stranger's enticement by saying "No, I have to go ask my teacher" and then quickly running away toward the school are given an immediate opportunity to try again. Specifically, (1) the child is debriefed, (2) the appropriate responses are explained to him or her, and (3) the two graduate students reassume their roles and instruct the child to try again. The child is not returned to class until he or she successfully emits the correct verbal and motor responses, and experiences praise for doing so. The study proceeds and is completed as planned. A few days later, Sally arranges that children in experimental and control groups view the video that children in the other group had viewed earlier.


The first item is deficient in removing negative consequences in at least two ways. First, even if feeling bad about doing the "wrong thing" was an unanticipated response, Sally should still have prepared for the worse. That is, she should have provided the parents with a source from which they could seek help for any ill-effects resulting from their child having taken part in her study. Second, should the experimental video be effective, then children in the control group would be at a disadvantage. Given that their parents consented to a study designed to teach children self-protective skills, it would not be unreasonable for them to expect their child to have an equal opportunity to profit in this regard.

The second item improves upon these deficiencies. Anticipating that children might be upset after discovering they had done the "wrong thing" when enticed by the confederate, Sally gives the inappropriate responders the chance to try again until they are successful and are praised by the graduate students. Hopefully, this remedial step will help them feel better. However, should their feeling bad persist, then the children's parents are able to contact Sally so that further corrective action can be taken. Another improvement is that all children eventually get to view the experimental video; in this way, control group participants do not remain more vulnerable to an abduction even though they participated in the same study with the same stated goal (assuming the experimental video is effective).

(See the Examples and Analysis under Principle E, for another scenario involving removing negative consequences.)