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The Nuremberg Code

The Nuremberg Code (from Katz, J., (1972). Experimentation with human beings. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.) has been introduced in Nuremberg in 1947, after discovering a number of atrocities and other crimes that happened during the WWII. This code is thought to be one of the bases of the today’s ethical standards in psychological as well as the medical research.The idea of this code is very similar to the Helsinki Declaration (www.wma.net). The point for all the ethical guidelines we need to follow is to reduce the risk to participants. Development of ethical guidelines was essential especially after the horrible experiments carried out during the WWII. There are also more recent experiments which show the extremes of the researcher’s carelessness such as the Stamford Prison experiment carried out by Zimbardo.

This code contains 10 points and I’m going to describe them briefly here.

1.       Inform consent needs to be obtained from each participant. Therefore all participants should have legal capacity to give consent (must be 18 years of age or above) and seen capable of making decisions for themselves.

2.       Research should not be random and unnecessary and should be beneficial.

3.        An experiment should be designed on the basis of the results of previous animal studies, as well as the knowledge of the field, so that any problems can be anticipated  in advance.

4.       An experiment should be designed to so that the participants can avoid being physically or mentally injured.

5.       If there is a prior study risk of death or a disabling injury the testing cannot be conducted.

6.       The magnitude of risk shall never exceed the humanitarian importance of the problem the experiment seeks to solve.

7.       Adequate preparation for the experiment should be made in order to protect the participants from possibility of injury, death or disability.

8.       Highest care must be taken of the participants during experiments, and experimenters should always be scientifically qualified to test participants.

9.       The participants should be aware of the fact that they can withdraw from the experiment when they feel the continuation is impossible.

10.   The experimenter during any study must be prepared to end the study when they professionally judge that continuation could lead the participants to an injury or even death.


All these relate to the 5 principles of ethics: Beneficence and non-malificence, fidelity and integrity, justice, respect for other’s rights and dignity.


So in summary the Nuremberg Code is the basis of today’s ethical guidelines. It has been introduced after crimes that some researchers committed (thinking they could get away without taking any consequences). I truly believe that ethical guidelines are absolutely necessary; otherwise no one would participate in experiments these days knowing what happen in the past.

Thanks for spending your time reading my blog.


Comments on: "The Nuremberg Code" (9)

  1. You’re right in your blog that some awful things have happened to people when they have participated in experiments. The Tuskagee syphilis study is an example of an unethical study that had devastating effects of people losing their lives when they could have been saved. This study is clearly unethical and it should have not ended like it did, researchers had the opportunity to change the outcomes but they chose not to.

    Having said that I think some experiments that have been deemed unethical have been important to the progress of psychology. Milgrams study for example, it provided lots of learning for psychologist and has played an essential part in the progression of the science of psychology. The participants did experience distress during his experiment but when followed up over 90% of participants were happy to have taken part. Milgram probably would not have received ethical approval if his experiment was to be conducted in 2012.

    The safety of participants is an important part of research but I do wonder if ethical guidelines will hinder the future of psychological research .. .. .. .. Older “unethical” studies are the ones we mainly learn during our undergraduate degree, will they still be teaching Milgram in 50years because no newer research can provide such interesting/shocking results .. .. .. ..




    • Hi, psuconfuzzled. I think you make a good point in you comment about Milgram. There is a large number of experiments we learn in our lectures about the studies which concern the ethics. Those include Milgram (1961), the Stamford Prizon experiment by Zimbardo (1973), or the study of compliance by Asch (1951), (look here for more examples: http://listverse.com/2008/09/07/top-10-unethical-psychological-experiments/). However Milgram’s study has been replicated in 2008 by Packer. Of course not following the exact procedures, but the idea was the same. He noticed that 79% of people who reached 150volts (which is when they made their first verbal protest) would continue to the end. Clever manipulations like this allow the studies to be replicated, and change the status of the study from unacceptable to ethical.

  2. Hello, informative blog

    However, i do have one slight question of your argument, do you really feel all points are completely neccesary to the degree the nuremberg code dictates? Whilst i don’t wish to say in any way we shouldn’t care about our participants, we have to remember the nuremberg code comes about at the end of a war which saw arguably some of the greatest (in terms of cruelty, not the good kind of great) abuse of experimentation ever. Now, most studies won’t face the kind of things they did and so ethics can sometimes be a bit of a restraint on the scientific process.

    Take for example point 2, this point makes the assumption i am telepathic or something of that ilk. How am i to know if my research is random? moreover if i have an idea that perhaps people who drink coffee are more likely to get colds due to stress than those who don’t, how much evidence do i need to support that>? seeing a few people sneeze in costa? the point is what is ‘sufficient evidence for research’.

    Secondly, the point about the humanitarian risk exceeding the benefits, surely this is again subjective. How can i know the benefits until the studies are done? also where does one draw the line? If i have a study which could make people with depression well forever, but at the cost of 10 people dying during the study, is an improvement in lifestyle for millions worth that? the point is the scale is slightly uninformative, it’s all far too subjective for me.

    • Yes, of course it is very difficult to say whether the benefits of the study will be greater than the costs, and yes, there is only one way to find out. However that is where we need ethics. Sometimes researchers are too confident of their own ideas, and these need to be reviewed by the ethics board, which will be able to tell whether it is safe to carry on with the experiment. Besides there are ways of ‘going around’ the ethics. For example the study of obedience carried out by Milgram in 1961 is now considered unethical, but doing some clever manipulation it is still possible to investigate the concept of obedience e.g. Packer (2008) noticed that 79% of people who reached 150volts (which is when they made their first verbal protest) continued to the end. This clever manipulation allows the study to be replicated. Ethics are very important, and they aim to push psychologists to their limits to develop ways to test participants causing them minimal harm.

  3. I completely agree with you on this blog, I also believe the Numenberg Code to be the basis for the existence of ethics in research.

    Upon the discovery of the horror of the experiments that Nazi scientist performed on the Jewish prisoners in the concentration camps. The implimentation of guidelines in research were more than necessary in an attempt to rid the world of research that can be considered morally evil. Studies that they ran include exposing prisoners to nerve gasses to how they died, and how long it took for them to die. To see what extremes a human could endure be it extreme heat, or cold. These studies were morally evil and horrific.

    However I do believe that ethics these days have entered the realm of being too PC. Yes it is 100% necessary for participants to be protected etc however research is reaching the stage where it will be almost impossible for research to be carried out. A great deal of research will be rejected from an ethics commitee due to small factors that are perhaps necassary for the study.

    Ethical guidelines restrict our research capabilities and restict us from a huge range of scientific possibilities. HOWEVER the guidelines are important and exist for good reason. The Nuremberg code was the stepping stone for creating a better science for the betterment of humanity. (Please excuse my somewhat extreme humanitarian sounding statements!)

    • You mentioned that psychological research is reaching the stage where it will be almost impossible for research to be carried out. However I bet to differ on this one. Ethics aim to protect participants, and they are deliberate with making the guidelines stricter and stricter. This is to stop the pointless experiments in which researchers make very little effort to plan their study to minimize harm to the participants and does not bring any benefits. They aim to force researchers to plan their experiments better, to find ways in which the risk of harm to participants is minimal. Here are some examples of psychological research which is believed to be unethical: http://listverse.com/2008/09/07/top-10-unethical-psychological-experiments/

  4. While you make several good points, do you believe that these regulations should be so strict and hard set? I believe that psychology looks at so many different areas of human behaviour, that applying rules like this cannot be useful in every single context studied. For example, would you link two totally unrelated studies, such as an interaction between two individuals and another looking at fMRI scans of the brain during very specific conditions? Should they therefore have corresponding rules that define them? Could be interesting to investigate.

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