What Is Informed Consent?

Signing informed consent
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Informed consent is a legal procedure to ensure that a patient, client and research participants are aware of all the potential risks and costs involved in a treatment or procedure. The elements of informed consent include informing the client of the nature of the research and the potential risks and benefits of the research.

For informed consent to be considered valid, the participant must be competent, and the consent should be given voluntarily.

Elements of Informed Consent in Psychology Research

The American Psychological Association outlines guidelines informed consent in Section 8 of their ethics code. According to the APA's code, researchers must do the following to obtain informed consent from participants in psychology research:

1. Inform the participants about the purpose of the research, the anticipated duration of the study and the procedures that will be used.

2. Participants must be told that they have the right to decline to participate in the study. They also must know that they can withdraw from the experiment at any time.

3. Participants must be made aware of any possible consequences of declining or withdrawing from the study.

4. Participants must be made aware of any potential consequences of participating in the study. This includes any potential risks, adverse effects or discomfort that may occur.

5. Participants must be made aware of the potential benefits of the research.

6. Any limitations on confidentiality must be disclosed.

7. Any incentives for participation should be clearly identified.

8. Participants must be told who they can contact if they have questions about the research or the rights of participants in the study.

If researchers plan to record audio or video footage of participants, informed consent must be obtained.

There are two exceptions. The first is when researchers conduct naturalistic observations in a public place and if there is no expectation that the recording could be used to personally identify or harm anyone who is recorded. Second, such consent does not need to occur at the outset if the study requires the use of deception. In such instanced, the researchers must obtain consent for the use of the recording during the debriefing process.

How Do Researchers Obtain Informed Consent?

As outlined above, participants should be informed about the details of the study prior to the outset of the research. Researchers can obtain either written or verbal confirmation to document and verify that all participants have given informed consent to participate. In most instances, researchers utilize a pre-written form that outlines all of the required information and allows participants to sign and date to confirm that they have read and understood the information.

Is Informed Consent Always Necessary?

There are a few instances where the APA suggests that psychologists may do without informed consent.

Such cases include when there is the reasonable assumption that the research would not cause any distress or harm. Another instance is where the study takes place as part of the normal classroom curriculum or educational practices. Studies that involve anonymous questionnaires, archival data or naturalistic observations do not require informed consent as long as the research presents no risk to the participants. Even in cases where informed consent is not needed, the participants can still withdraw at any time.

Informed Consent and the Use of Deception in Research

What about cases where deception may be an integral part of the study? In some instances, informing participants about the nature of the experiment might influence their behavior and, therefore, the results.

The APA notes that deception should only take place if the use of such techniques is justified given what might be gained from performing the study. It is often the duty of an Institutional Review Board to determine if the use of deception is acceptable and to grant permission for such studies to take place.

If researchers do utilize deception as part of an experiment, ethical guidelines suggest that participants should be informed of the deception and the true nature of the experiment as soon as possible. Once such deception has been revealed, participants should also be given the opportunity to withdraw their data if they so desire.

More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary


American Psychological Association. (2010). Ethical principles of psychologists. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/index.aspx?item=11

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