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.

Testing in Psychology

Psychological testing is a recent development in the field of Psychology. For many years, testing of the mind relied on therapists’ interpretations of the material gathered from a patient. However, now with testing such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), testing relies on self interpretation.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was developed in 1942 by Katherine Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs-Meyers. Though neither of these ladies had a background in psychology, they closely followed works of Freud, Jung, and other intrinsic psychologists. The MBTI is based off of Carl Jung’s 16 different personality types and measures the 5-factor model: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. This test is usually used to identify qualities and downfalls in an interview process. However, many believe this test is faulty and follows the Barnum-Forer effect principles. This is because the results of the MBTI are often flattering such as: thinker, performer, nurturer, etc. and can be applicable to many people. Another reason skeptics disdain the MBTI, is for it’s test-retest reliability. For example, the first time I took the MBTI, I was told I had an ESTP personality type- the next time, ISTP. How can one be classified as both introverted (E) and extroverted (E) within a 3-month span? While the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a fun personality quiz, the test is wavering in the field of psychology.

As opposed to the MBTI, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2 (1989) is commonly used in psychology offices to produce an accurate measure of mental illness and other clinical problems. This test may only be administered by trained psychologists, meaning its’ validity is less likely to become compromised. Currently, the MMPI-2 has been updated to include only true and false questions, making the grading of the test more substantial in its interpretation. The test grades on 10 clinical aspects: hypochondriasas, depression, hysteria, psychopathic deviate, femininity/masculinity, psychasthenia, schizophrenia, hypomania, paranoia, and social introversion. However, the results rely on self-reported answers- therefore it is dependent upon the test-takers truthful answers. Over time, the MMPI has been upgraded to improve the conventional interpretations and clinical scales once used by Starke Hathaway, the creator of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory.

Projective testing relies simply on interpretation, as many psychological testing did in the past. For example, the most widely used projective test, the Rorschach test (1918) contains a set of cards containing inkblots- a subject identifies what they see within the inkblots, and the test administrator will then interpret these answers. The clinical diagnosis is then dependent upon ones’ own interpretations of an inkblot as ‘a cow.’ As one can imagine, this test has many negative connotations associated with it. Though the Rorschach test is still used today, its’ results are widely ignored due to its’ online availability and publicism. However, the diversion away from the Rorschach test could be related to the rise of Art Therapy within western culture. Art therapy uses internal feelings (such as emotions, anxiety, and self-esteem) to create artistic interpretations of these feelings. Likewise, the Rorschach test often produces results that are transparent to what a subject is experiencing both internally and externally.

As it relates to introspection, psychological testing is not advanced enough to produce reliable and accurate results. Mentioned above, many of these tests rely on self-reporting in order to produce results. Though we like to think people are honest, many times when taken longitudinally, test results vary. The field of psychology aims to identify peoples’ thoughts, emotions, dreams, etc.; however, it is difficult to do so without truthful answers and/or neural and biological examination. As the field advances, so do technologies and our understanding of personality and human distinctions.


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