Morals & Ethics in Psychological Research

Before mental health awareness became a movement in the United States, those who were different from the rest of society were often thrown away into asylums- to no longer be a hassle to the world around them. Their rights were diminished and the treatment endured, substantial. If truly mentally ill, with no representative present, does a mentally handicapped person have a say so in their treatment? Today, we would say yes; however in the late 1800’s, testing, treatments, and inhumane observations were implicated upon those who had no say-so in their well-being.

We often think about ethics, morals, and principles in the field of psychology, though it wasn’t until the mid 1900’s that ethic codes were established by the American Psychology Association (APA). Before this, studies focused on finding an explanation to an issue, rather or not there was substantial harm or risk involved. For example, the Monster Study (1939)- which used positive and negative speech therapy on children. Though the results of this study were never published (due to fear of obvious backlash), the children involved harbored more speech imperfections upon completion of the study than before. This is a prime example of unethical research done before modern day advances in psychological research.

Mental asylums contained one of the most profound mistakes in the history of psychological research. Patients were often mistreated, without rights, and subjected to torture for the purpose of studying the humans’ thoughts, behaviors, and motives. Dorothea Dix advocated on behalf of the mentally ill for better living conditions and standards during the mid 1800’s which brought about positive change to mental asylums. The asylums began implementing individual health plans and removed caging, restraints, etc. due to the persuasive work of Ms. Dix. She also challenged the traditional theory that those who were mentally unstable could not be helped, meaning it was possible for treatment and release rather than discarding mentally-unfit individuals.

This movement was the initial start to mental health awareness policies, which continue today. The term ‘moral treatment’ was coined out of this era, and later imposed on psychological research standards in the mid 1900’s. Though the joining of psychology and biology had been warranted for some time, ethical and moral guidelines should have been in place prior to conducting research on humans.

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