PSY 5107 Audit an Infamous Study in Psychology

PSY 5107 Audit an Infamous Study in Psychology

PSY 5107 Audit an Infamous Study in Psychology

Overview of Tuskegee study

Tuskegee is among the infamous studies that drew attention to the gross violation of ethics and human rights. The experiment conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service involved participants who had syphilis and others who did not, selected with the promise that they would be given treatment. The experiment was conducted between 1932 and 1972 (Barrett, 2019) to study the natural history of the disease. All the subjects of the study were black men, which were socioeconomically disadvantaged at the time. The hidden rationale for the project was based on the science of evolution with the intention that the fittest would survive and the weak become eliminated. Among the participants, 600 were men, 201 were without syphilis and 399 were with syphilis. Participants were informed they were being treated for “bad blood”. Yet, they did not receive treatment throughout the study period.

What became of the study?

While there were no recorded study results, it had several negative outcomes for the participants. First, 128 men who participated in the study died during that period because of syphilis and its related complications. Secondly, 40 spouses who initially did not have the disease were infected with the condition. Thirdly, 19 children were born with congenital syphilis (Alsan et al., 2020). Infants acquire congenital syphilis when an infected mother passes on the virus to the newborn. Fourth, at the time, syphilis was considered a scourge and those who were selected for the study together with their family experienced social stigma. Eventually, the study was discontinued in 1972 following a whistle-blowing incident by Bill Jenkins, which led to a publication in the New York Times. For forty years, the participants did not receive treatment, leading to a public outcry that pressured the healthcare authorities to end the study.

Ethical issues

– Several ethical concerns came up with the study. First, there was no evidence that the participants had signed informed consent. This means that they had not been given information on what the study entailed including the risks and benefits to expect from the study. Similarly, informed consent should also have a declaration of anonymity and confidentiality of the participants’ roles in the research. Furthermore, the participants had not been given the opportunity to withdraw from the study at any point they felt uncomfortable continuing (Barrett, 2019). Another ethical issue is that the participants were harmed by the research. One of the ethical requirements of scientific research is the protection of participants from harm. However, in this study, instead of receiving treatment as promised, the participants died or developed complications, an impact that extended to the family members.

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Another ethical issue from the Tuskegee study was the deception of the participants. First, the participants were

PSY 5107 Audit an Infamous Study in Psychology
PSY 5107 Audit an Infamous Study in Psychology

promised they would get treated for their condition, which was a lie as the researchers had no intention of treating the male Negros. In fact, even when penicillin was introduced in 1947 as a medication for treating syphilis, the participants were never offered the drug (CDC, 2021). The participants continued to remain without treatment for the 40 years the research was active. Thirdly, the participants were told that the study would only last for six months but it went on for 40 years and would have continued if not for the whistle-blowing that led to its discontinuation. The researchers also violated the vulnerable population of Black Africans by promising that those who took part in the study would receive benefits. The participants were lured with hot meals, burial insurance, and free medical examination.

Steps to revise the study

The steps to revising the study require the application of the four principles of biomedical ethics. The first principle is respect for autonomy. Respect for autonomy means that the participants of research should have the chance to make an independent decision on their participation in the research. Every participant should be provided with adequate information to inform their decision on whether they want to participate in a study or not (Mustapha & Nketiah, 2021). This information is contained in an informed consent document. An informed consent document details the risks and benefits of the study and also makes it clear that a person can withdraw from the study at any point during the experiment. Other elements of informed consent are confidentiality and privacy of the participants. The second principle is beneficence, which is the practice of moral good. The principles guide researchers to treat research participants with dignity and obey their human rights (Gravetter & Forzano, 2018)). Beneficence would also ensure that the participants receive treatment.

The second principle is nonmaleficence which means that any study should not harm the participants. To revise the study, it would be essential to avail treatment for the participants and protect them from any adverse outcomes that might be caused by the study. Moreover, it is to create a debriefing plan, which is a following up plan to ensure that the participants have not experienced any adverse outcomes even after the completion of the study. The fourth principle is fairness/justice, which denotes actions that treat people with equity. For example, the researchers should have not chosen the participants because of their socioeconomic vulnerabilities as this is unfair treatment. Furthermore, to ensure fairness the participants should have received treatment like the rest of the population when penicillin treatment was rolled out.


The Tuskegee study is a good example of psychological studies infamous for violation of ethical principles in research with human subjects. The aim of the study was to understand the nature of syphilis, which led to the selection of participants from the Negro community. Although the reason for recruiting the participants was to provide treatment, they did not receive any treatment for the 40 years that the experiment remained active even after the introduction of penicillin. Some of the ethical issues were deception and luring clients with incentives such as medical check-ups, hot meals, and burial insurance.  Additionally, there was no informed consent, privacy and confidentiality, or withdrawal, all absent. Revising the study ensures also adheres to respect for autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice. These are essential for the protection of patients from harm.


¡Alsan, M., Wanamaker, M. & Hardeman, R.R. (2020). The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis: A Case Study in Peripheral Trauma with Implications for Health Professionals. J GEN INTERN MED 35, 322–325..

¡Barrett, L. A. (2019). Tuskegee Syphilis Study of 1932–1973 and the Rise of Bioethics as Shown Through Government Documents and Actions. Documents to the People, 47(4).

¡CDC. (2021, April 22). The Tuskegee Timeline. Retrieved from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

¡Gravetter, F. J., & Forzano, L. B. (2018). Research methods for the behavioral sciences (6th ed.). Cengage Learning.

¡Mustapha, H. S., & Nketiah, B. (2021). Ethics: An Insight into Psychological Research and Practice. Scientific Research, 8(1). https://www.doi.10.4236/oalib.1107110.