Unethical Behavior in Medical and Psych Research Is Depressing

Fraud, negligence, misguided good intentions combined with poor study design, intellectual conformity… these are among the problems plaguing research.

A couple of links as examples:

  • Possible fabricated evidence in Alzheimer’s research.
  • A chemical imbalance theory of depression, pushed for years by many psych professionals and the media, doesn’t have much evidence to back it up. (By the way, if you’re currently on antidepressants, please discuss any concerns with your doctor and don’t just abruptly stop taking them. That itself could be harmful.)
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Researching the Long-Term Damage of Romanian Orphanages

Read this excellent article that looks into the ethics of researching cognitive and neural development in Romanian children who live in orphanages. Even when adequate food, shelter, and medical care are provided, the children suffer from neglect; from a young age, they don’t interact much with caretakers, which stunts their development.

What practical benefit will this research have for the kids? Will the research itself be enough to change state policies? What is the research telling us that’s new? We already understand that growing up in these orphanages increase the chances of hurting cognition, emotional development, and other aspects of psychological health. What benefit will it bring to science, and to the kids, to investigate the effects on their brain, which includes decreased white matter?

Psychology’s checkered past

The experiments mentioned in 10 Psychological Experiments that Went Horribly Wrong are more complex (and darker) than how they’re portrayed in the article, which also doesn’t give a full account of the rationale behind some of them and what conclusions we can draw from them.

But the article is still worth a look, to get a sense of the kinds of unethical cruel decisions made by experimenters and doctors, the poor experimental designs of their studies, and the way that human nature can often turn ugly really fast.

In their bid to capture, quantify or control some of our most fundamental qualities – love, cruelty, craving for approval, sexual identity, fear, power and submission – these experimenters usually didn’t account for how messy people can be (and how easy it is to let power over others go to your head).

Synaptic Sunday #4

This Sunday, links on the flexibility of our moral choices:

1) Psychology of Fraud: Why Good People Do Bad Things

I wonder what the definition of a bad person would be within the framework of the article. Someone who’s instructed to think ethically (given an ethical framework about a set of choices) but still makes unethical choices? Someone who’s never sincerely repentant? This line also jumped out at me:

In general, when we think about bad behavior, we think about it being tied to character: Bad people do bad things. But that model, researchers say, is profoundly inadequate.

I think it’s still tied to character, but not in a cartoonish way – shining superheroes vs. dastardly supervillains (though there are individuals who closely resemble each). Everyone has various weaknesses and temptations, not to mention the capacity for self-delusion – to think about an evil act in a more benign way, rationalizing it. The ability to fight rationalizations and temptations, and recognize them before they take root and become mental habits, is an essential part of having a stronger character. The success may be mixed. It’s usually not as simple as thinking of character having two settings: pure good or pure evil.

So the question ‘Why do Good People Do Bad Things?’ still brings you back to the point on what the authors here mean by a ‘good person’ (or a ‘bad person’). Good people may do bad things, but they also do good things? They do certain kinds of bad things but not other kinds? They do bad things from a good motive that they sincerely feel minimizes the bad or makes it a grudging ‘necessary evil’ rather than something undertaken with supervillainish glee? (But so much destruction and evil have stemmed from well-intentioned policies, ideological principles and motives.) They operate out of ignorance more than cold calculation? (A line from the article: (“and if we want to attack fraud, we have to understand that a lot of fraud is unintentional.”) How ignorant are they? How unintentional is it?

The article ends with some proposals to make people in business environments less susceptible to perpetrating fraud. After listing some proposals the article ends with:

Or, we could just keep saying what we’ve always said — that right is right, and wrong is wrong, and people should know the difference.

Well, shouldn’t they know? That doesn’t mean that people aren’t more susceptible in some situations to committing evil, even outside of their awareness. Developing awareness of those susceptibilities and temptations, developing the discernment to see them even when they seem to slip unknowingly into one’s behavior (including when they’re in the guise of good deeds), and rectifying their ill effects as soon as possible are all at the heart of having a good character.

2) Wearing Two Different Hats: Moral Decisions May Depend on the Situation

“We find that people tend to make decisions that may conflict with their morals when they are overwhelmed, or when they are just doing routine tasks without thinking of the consequences,” Leavitt said. “We tend to play out a script as if our role has already been written. So the bottom line is, slow down and think about the consequences when making an ethical decision.”

The scripts can be different depending on the role we’re playing (are we thinking like a medic or a soldier?) More on this research here.