Ethical Standards in Psychological Testing

By Dr. Monique Marie Chouraeshkenazi

Photo Source: Dan Mason via Flickr

There are ethical standards in testing psychology due to the unique involvement of observing and conducting research on human subjects. When dealing with people and sensitive (and/or private) information, it is mandated that specific procedures are implemented to ensure researchers are not only protecting the integrity of the work, but are protecting the participants involved. There are ethical codes for psychology, domestically and abroad, that are predicated on testing standards specific to the codes of conduct (Leach & Oakland, 2007). This brings value to ethical standards and the willingness for participants to want to be involved in experiments. It is understood that any psychological test conducted, the findings will not be disclosed to other individuals and/or companies that are not involved in the process (McIntire & Miller, 2007). 

Next, ethical codes are useful because it is important for researchers to be clear on what they plan to do with the results. When I conducted research for my doctoral dissertation, I interviewed a sensitive population. It was very important that they know that not only would they remain anonymous (optional), it would be clear on what I would do with the information after it had been analyze, interpreted, and produced results. This was a determining factor with some deciding whether to move forward with the interview. Ethical principles mandate that the participant knows exactly what a researcher’s intentions are with the data collected, how it will be stored, and its use after the research/experiment is completed. 

Sometimes it can be challenging to avoid some ethical issues and that is protocol should be in place to mitigate violations as much as possible. For example, bias and privacy issues played an important role in my research, based on the topic, the controversy of the acquisition [F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program], and the costs that affected American taxpayers. I developed appendices that mitigated unethical behavior within the interviews and ensured privacy would be maintain by controlling interviews in specific locations where it was only the participant and myself.  

Three guidelines that related to using online testing in practice would be: 

  • Resolving Ethical Issues 

  • Human relations 

  • Privacy & Confidentiality 

Resolving Ethical Issues.It is important that ethical issues are resolved before moving forward. When I was conducted my research, I tried to think about all possible ethical issues that could become a problem. For example, I was active duty Air Force at the time, worked at the Pentagon, was a student, and my research was on the United States’ largest acquisition to date: The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. And guess who the program belonged to? Department of Defense (the Pentagon). I had to conduct “research” for the research on how working in the Pentagon for multiple Defense Secretaries would not present bias, disclose any sensitive and/or classified information, or show favoritism to my research. Also, there were laws involved on what I could discuss and how I could represent my research to the public. The Department of Defense had its own ethical standards I had to follow, in conjunction with the University’s standards. What made it difficult was that most of my coordination was completed online and I had to have additional protocol to protect the flow of information via the Internet. This was especially important to ensure there were not any conflicts with ethics, laws, and regulations between both agencies (American Psychological Association [APA], 2018). I am sure the same applies for the psychological field when it comes to online testing. 

Human Relations. Most of my interviews were in-person, but a few were conducted telephonically. This was somewhat challenging because I interviewed people who were considered “special or protected” populations. For those that I conducted via the Internet, I ensured security specialists made sure lines were cleared to mitigate infiltration (sounds more serious than what it was). Having them sign a statement, ensuring total privacy and no disclosure to third parties was nerve-wracking, if something happened that was beyond my control. However, it is important that researchers take the utmost steps in ensuring that their participants and others involved in the research are not harmed (APA, 2018). 

Privacy and Confidentiality. This is one I considered to be the most important since all coordination was online and there were so many challenges that could have come to fruition if I did not do my job of covering all bases to protect my participants, the University, and myself. Maintaining confidentially was key. I ensured all correspondence was with the participant and one immediate staff member (since they were responsible for scheduling and practically the individual’s entire professional life). I ensured all correspondences were labeled “FOUO” (For Official Use Only) to understand there was sensitive, but not classified information within the emails because there was an obligation to protect the participant’s information (APA, 2018). I had all participants sign thoroughly-written confidentiality agreements and disclosure agreements (Informed Consent). And because all my interviews were recorded, I had them sign separate agreements for recording information and how those recordings would be handled (disposed of) after the study was completed. 

All the elements presented are relevant because it deals with ethical standards of how researchers should conduct themselves, have sound protocol to protect their participants, and protect confidential information. My research was an example of working in a “multiple relationship” capacity and I am sure this is especially relevant in psychology, if psychologists are conducting studies with their colleagues or other individuals, which can impose some type of conflict. For example, if a psychologist is working a project with his/her superior, there are two relationships: supervisor and subordinate and collaborative researchers. APA states a psychologist should refrain from such a relationship if the collaboration “impairs the psychologist’s objectivity, competence, or effectiveness in performing his or her functions as a psychologist, or otherwise exploits or harm to the person with whom the professional relationship exists” (2018, para. 7). If this is not the cause, then there should not be any conflicts. 

I believe it is a very complex situation between ethical standards and cyber issues, especially in sensitive fields, dealing with human subjects. As I stated in my initial post, there were additional issues I had to consider when working with my interviewees, based on having to interact with additional people and all correspondence was completed via Email and the Internet.

As for the psychological field, I believe the ethical standards hold up to cybersecurity initiatives as much as those who implement and enforces such standards. As McAlaney, Thackray, and Taylor state (2016) online communications are as good as those understanding the relationship of trust, interdependence, and the sharing information within a virtual world. Breaching the concept of trust is when problems arise within the psychological field and those in the profession could potentially deal with hackers infiltrating systems to obtain sensitive and personnel information. The ethical standards I mentioned are an amalgamation of characteristics on how those should handle people and their information. Human relations are an especially important, and it is dependent upon the organizations to ensure there are methods in place to protect patients, their information, and enforce privacy and confidentially laws that not only relate to the privacy rights under HIPAA, but those rights patients have when participating in experiments and research studies. Resolving ethical issues in the cyber world through appropriate training and situational awareness is beneficial. I know most fields require this training so those who deal with ethical issues, it is recommended. Additionally, organizations should be held accountable for their IT departments to ensure they have the most innovative systems and security software programs to mitigate cyber hackings and other security breaches. 

   Psychologists may:

      -  Disclose private information without consent in order to protect the patient or the public from serious harm — if, for example, a client discusses plans to attempt suicide or harm another person.

    - Are required to report ongoing domestic violence, abuse or neglect of children, the elderly or people with disabilities. (However, if an adult discloses that he or she was abused as a child, the psychologist typically isn't bound to report that abuse, unless there are other children continuing to be abused.)

    - May release information if they receive a court order. That might happen if a person's mental health came into question during legal proceedings (American Psychological Association, 2018).

If an assessment is called into question, the issue needs to be rectified to not only protect the participants involved, but to protect the integrity of the study. The American Psychological Association discusses 10 ways to avoid ethical issues (2018). Protecting confidential information, respecting people's autonomy, and document are what I found to be the most significant in mitigating ethical issues. I believe all ethical issues are important in a study, but there are some, in my opinion, that are more significant others when dealing with human subjects. It's all about protecting their interests and protecting the establishment that is responsible for one's study. If there's consistent violations, that mitigate credibility and in turn, the researcher can lose credibility to publish work that may be significant to the field. 

References

American Psychological Association. (2018). Ethical principles psychologists and codes of conduct. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/ (accessed on 2 July 2018). 

 American Psychological Association. (2018). Protecting your privacy: Understanding confidentiality. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/confidentiality.aspx (accessed on 7 July 2018). 

American Psychological Association. (2018). 10 ways practitioners can avoid frequent ethical pitfalls. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/jan03/10ways.aspx

McAlaney, J., Thackray, H., Taylor, J. (2016). The social psychology of cybersecurity. The British Psychology Society. Retrieved from https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-29/september/social-psychology-cybersecurity (accessed on 5 July 2018). 

Leach, M. M., & Oakland, T. (2007). Ethical standards impacting test development and use: A review of 31 ethics codes impacting 35 countries. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis. pp. 71-88.

McIntire, S. A. & Miller, L. A. (2007). Foundations of psychological testing: A practical approach. 2nded. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. 

Dr. Monique Chouraeshkenazi