Ethical Insight: When to Observe and When to Act

Laura Butterworth

Pitch It: The Business Case for Customer Salience

As insight experts, we understand the power of insights, their inherent value in key decision-making...


Emily James

    Often when it comes to ethics in daily situations our moral compass kicks in, determining how we act upon a situation. In a specific context, such as a job role, title etc. the many different contexts and cultures that we find ourselves in can influence our actions.

    In a research context, sometimes ethical boundaries are not clearly defined. It can be difficult to gain informed consent and raising awareness to consumers on exactly what they might be consenting to. Some of the most controversial research experiments to date cross the boundaries of ethics and have shocked the world of insight.

    For instance, if we look into the world of psychological research experiments, a turn of events within research can occur very quickly and make research unethical if the correct procedures/ethics are not in place to start off with. The Stanford Prison experiment, Milgram’s experiment, they all have one thing in common – a failing to recognise when to observe and when to act.

    Management of Legal and Human Ethics in Research

    As researchers, it’s important to recognise things that can go wrong and we need to act on them if they do. In terms of confidentiality, researchers must remain impartial at all times and ensure participant identity is protected. A breach in confidentiality would be in breach of the recently instated GDPR and instantly make the research unethical.

    Tweet from FlexMR Tweet This
    Ethical issues can arise very quickly, so it's important for researchers to know how to take action to avoid research becoming unethical. 

    As well as the right to confidentiality, participants also have the right to be forgotten and the right to withdraw from a research study at any given time. It is a researcher’s job to make sure that these rights are upheld, and so to act upon unsubscribe or withdraw applications efficiently. Again, not acting on this would be in breach of GDPR and also completely unethical.

    In order to ensure that research remains ethical from start to finish, researchers must ensure that participants are informed as much as possible, with all possible areas of ethical issue covered. The more participants are informed during the study, the better they can make their decisions about what they want to contribute and when. However, it is also important to ensure consent is obtained before participants are enrolled onto the study and that ensure legal policies (terms of use, privacy policy, etc.) are accepted before participation.

    During the research itself, it is important to recognise the vulnerabilities that may occur within participants. If the research covers sensitive topics, vulnerabilities can be uncovered within the participant’s replies. Participants may open up to you as the researcher/moderator, and you are left with a vulnerable individual who may require additional support.

    Always remember to have contact details of organisations/people that can help in this situation and take care to remind participants that they don’t have to divulge any information that they don’t want to. If they want to retract any information they have offered, it is a researcher’s duty to make sure that there is no trace of the information recorded anywhere in the research study. Failing to recognise these vulnerabilities during research is unethical and requires some moral input from the researchers to maintain ethical conducts.

    Ethics in Organisational Culture

    The extent to which an organisation’s underlying assumptions are experienced has a significant impact on the actions of those working within it. In other words, we get stuck in our ways, so as moderators, it’s important to try not to make assumptions based on previous experiences.

    Whether we realise it or not, we find ourselves using language, following rituals and rules of what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ within an organisation – kind of like norms that we all follow and work by. It’s easy to include these organisational norms into the role of the researcher/moderator without realising. Ethical research needs to be impartial and involve unbiased communication. It’s best practice to follow set moderation guides and pre-planned prompts within a topic guide, so that organisational culture doesn’t get in the way and negatively influence your research outcome.

    Ethics in Moderation

    Moderation is the communication key to unlocking that extra detail that may otherwise be missed. In general terms, a ‘moderator’ is defined as someone who is an ‘arbitrator or mediator’ and have a level of authority over a group of individuals whilst setting rules, actioning inappropriateness and keeping the peace. Naturally then, moderators have ethical responsibilities, knowing when to act if a situation arises.

    From an insight perspective, these ethical responsibilities apply with the addition of observing; monitoring research progress, making notes, identifying common themes. When it comes to diving in, moderators have direct communication with participants (questioning, prompting) in order to gain the required level of insight. Qual research would be somewhat empty without moderation – including online discussions, online diaries etc., and also online research forums/communities. The question often arises during moderation of when is the right time to act and prompt for more detail – and the answer varies depending on the type of research involved but also the person moderating.

    Different people will have different personal ethical values. Prompting for more detail within research is still ethical, but if you go overboard this can make the research become unethical and you run the risk of breaching that level of contact that you set expectations of in the first place. Consider many things for moderation in research, but just to name a few - the nature of the research, the research tasks involved, the sample taking part, the length of the research, the reward.

    With moderation comes great responsibility, and it is your responsibility to make sure you collect as much insight data as possible, within the boundaries of positive ethics.

    Tweet from FlexMR Tweet This
    With moderation comes great responsibility, and it is a moderator's responsibility to make sure you collect as much insight data as possible, within the boundaries of positive ethics.

    When to act and when to observe

    There comes a time in research when the best thing to do is simply sit back and watch the results come in. Let the participants do the talking! Often with quant research (such as surveys, polls) there is no moderation needed, unless you feel a follow up qual task would provide you with further insight. Qual tasks such as online focus groups benefit from a set of pre-decided prompts that will come into action when the time is right. You can often predict where prompting for more detail will be needed.

    So with this in mind, what prompts are good prompts? Good prompts can include the classic – what/why/when/how questions, but be careful not to ask leading or loaded questions! They are extremely biased and can influence/determine the outcome of the research in question. Wording, tone, and even design and colours can put an unwanted skew on things.


    No research can really be classed as ethical unless it complies with the MRS code of conduct. Although a participant may tick to agree to your terms and conditions, privacy policy etc., a researcher/moderator is still required to ensure that all participants are in full understanding and awareness about what is required of them, what rights they have and more. Not only this, but the actual researcher/moderator is responsible for ethical communication throughout the research, knowing when to observe and when to act.

    New call-to-action

    You might also like...

    Blog Featured Image Header

    Market Research Room 101: Round 2

    On Thursday 9th May 2024, Team Russell and Team Hudson duelled in a panel debate modelled off the popular TV show Room 101. This mock-gameshow-style panel, hosted by Keen as Mustard Marketing's Lucy D...

    8 MIN READ
    Blog Featured Image Header

    Delivering AI Powered Qual at Scale...

    It’s safe to say artificial intelligence, and more specifically generative AI, has had a transformative impact on the market research sector. From the contentious emergence of synthetic participants t...

    7 MIN READ
    Blog Featured Image Header

    How to Use Digital Ethnography and ...

    In one way or another, we’ve all encountered social media spaces. Whether you’ve had a Facebook account since it first landed on the internet, created different accounts to keep up with relatives duri...

    7 MIN READ