Ethics shouldn't make you depressed.
Picture this. You are a mad scientist. You place a large number of rats into individual containers filled with water, get out the stop watch and time how long it takes them to succumb to the inevitable – death by drowning. And, as if this isn’t mad enough already, half of these rats you then rescue from their watery grave. You take them out, towel them off, give them a bit of a blow dry, reassure them that it was all just a terrible mistake, and give them some food, a blanket to warm themselves and a teddy bear to cuddle as they try to overcome their ordeal. Then, (ha ha!) you place them back into their watery containers and time how long it takes them to drown this time. For real. Didn’t I tell you that you were a mad scientist? [For the impatient among you, skip to the end for the fascinating AND repellant results.]
A bizarre study has just landed on my desk. In the IB Psychology Diploma course we examine in detail the ethics of research studies in the learning outcome: Discuss ethical considerations related to research studies at the cognitive level of analysis (also at the biological and socio-cultural levels of analysis). And those choosing the Abnormal Psychology option (and that’s most of you out there) will probably look at major depression as an affective disorder, and explore the learning outcome: Analyse etiologies of one disorder. This study by Richter (1957) can be applied to both learning outcomes in IB Psychology.
Firstly, there are (now) clear guidelines in the American Psychological Association (APA) manual into the ethical treatment of animals when used in research studies. Guidelines which were obviously lacking in 1957. The following ethical guidelines have now been formulated:
Animal research should try to avoid harm to animals. Any harm caused to animal should be carefully weighed against the research’s potential to provide significant benefit to the health or welfare of humans or other animals, or if it is unavoidable (e.g., electrodes that monitor individual neuronal hippocampal activity in memory tasks). If the procedure would cause pain to humans, it should be assumed that it will cause pain to animals. Animal welfare should be monitored and animals should be euthanised as soon as possible if research causes long term/serious harm and/or affects their ability to live normally and pain-free.
Now while the results of Richter the mad rat torturer are astonishing (yes, we’ll come to these in a minute), there is no way they could have been predicted ahead of time. No hypothesis was formed, it was just a see what happens ‘study’ which, incidentally, came to provide great insight into some factors that can lead to depression. Thus, it fails the “…research’s potential to provide significant benefit …” test. In fact, what Richter was really interested in was the sudden deaths associated with Voodoo cultures when a victim had been cursed – a tenuous connection to drowning rats at best. It also begs the question as to what else he was doing to animals that was not making it into the scientific literature (rescuing them from the mouths of feral cats before feeding them to rabid dogs?).
Further: “If the procedure would cause pain to humans, it should be assumed that it will cause pain to animals (APA).” Super stressed animals suffering a protracted death cannot possibly be justified here. Poor rats. Trust your gut instincts. If this was not your initial reaction then consider taking this test.
Unethical? Definitely. So what insight does the research provide us into the etiologies of major depression? Now, we need to look at those results.
The average length of time at which rats stopped swimming and drowned in the ‘helplessness’ condition was short. Rats in this condition ceased swimming and drowned within minutes – they just gave up, submitting to what they believed was inevitable.
The rescued rats swam for hours. Up to sixty hours of swimming, paddling and treading water was recorded in this dastardly study. Rescue a rat, provide them with some hope and they will fight and try and hang on in there until they have exhausted their physical and mental limits.
Warning! Contains graphic content
A cause of depression linked suicide is the phenomenon of learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is all about feeling trapped in an insoluble situation. A depressed person can believe that his or her situation is impossible to escape. Through experience, people can think, feel and behave as if their situation is helpless, when it is not. Repeated exposure to these negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours can lead to depressive thoughts, and eventually … well, we know how some people eventually believe they can find some control in their lives. Control over how they can ultimately escape the situation.
If you cannot find your own way out. You will need to reach out and find that helping hand. Let’s just hope that that hand doesn’t belong to a mad scientist.
Author: Derek Burton - Passionate about IB Psychology
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