In the application of psychological knowledge, the ethics for consideration include the consent of the subject for the application or practice of psychology. That is: whether or not the subject is explicitly, consciously consenting and taking part in an exercise or experiment, such as one which may cause extreme distress or discomfort. I would cite the Little Albert experiment as an example of an ethical conflict with regards to subject consent.

That said, in the consideration of the design and implementation of modern computer applications GUIs, electronic device interfaces, and web page layouts, or user interface ergonomics, is there any published or practiced ethical standard with regards to the sort of consent required to be offered or stated by a user when interacting with such an interface?

An example might be one where a marketing or impulse exploit is used to draw a person into using a mobile app or web page and then stuffing extraneous cookies into the users browser cache, perhaps for malicious purposes, with little to no content of substance or even intentionally misleading content being provided in return. Such as is the case of links or advertisements bringing users into a situation where they are quickly, and often unknowingly, forwarded through several pages which may quickly store cookies, but render nothing. Or instances where a user is redirected through a series of unnecessary networks only for the purpose of logging and tracking the user with no way for a typical user to know without a moderate to advanced technological background in computer networking. (Think dark patterns and click bait.)

While I am aware of the laws such as the computer fraud and abuse act which seek to prevent “security hacking” activities, I’m more specifically looking for something that might be used as an ethical standard to help guide the design and implementation of user device and application interfaces.

This may perhaps verge on the topic of intentionally confusing language and dependency requirements in licensing and EULAs, so I guess barring explicitly malicious language, how might the ethics of implied consent be applied to an end user?

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    $\begingroup$ Apart from the mention of the "Little Albert experiment", I am struggling to see the relevance of the question to Psychology and Neuroscience. I feel this question may be better suited at Law.SE $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 25, 2021 at 12:54
  • $\begingroup$ Perhaps it may be more geared toward marketing, but I specifically stated in the question my awareness of legal protections. It is possible I am misunderstanding the content of this particular QA. My intention was to understand some ethical considerations about the use of psychology in UX. Such as the consideration about the types of elements used in slot machines. While the UI typically is a smaller subset of psychological applications, I guess I was aiming in that direction. $\endgroup$
    – Chezzwizz
    Commented Jun 25, 2021 at 14:06
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    $\begingroup$ I'm voting to close as opinion-based, but I'd also say this question isn't really about the sciences of psychology and neuroscience. It seems more directed towards philosophy and ethics. You might be able to ask on philosophy about how you would determine what is ethical in this space, but you won't get any ethics out of science. I'd say ethics directly related to research in psych and neuro is on-topic here, but ethics elsewhere is not. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jun 25, 2021 at 14:17
  • $\begingroup$ I agree completely, my question is about the science of psychology and neurology as it specifically pertains to the design and implementation of user interfaces. Like how color positioning and timing of online elements can be designed to take advantage of FOMO or impulsivity. From these comments, it sounds like there is no line and there is little concern for any within the sciences of psychology and neurology. Free for all on addiction incentives for user interfaces, games, etc? $\endgroup$
    – Chezzwizz
    Commented Jun 25, 2021 at 16:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Chezzwizz That's not what I said, what I said was that it's not for psychology and neuroscience to decide what is ethical and what is not outside of their fields. Web design and game development is outside of the field of psychology. You could design an experiment to show that doing X causes some negative consequence Y, but you can't do an experiment that says whether consequence Y makes doing X unethical. Science can't help you there. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jun 25, 2021 at 18:48

1 Answer 1


As it relates to the application of psychology, the idea of complied consent seems to be less the arena of science and more the arena of philosophy or perhaps meta psychology.

While it may not be a topic that is in parallel with the conduct of research per say, there is a published set of ethical standards by the APA which states in the introduction:

The fact that a given conduct is not specifically addressed by an Ethical Standard does not mean that it is necessarily either ethical or unethical.

Additionally, as far as the scope of applicability, the introduction continues with:

This Ethics Code applies only to psychologists' activities that are part of their scientific, educational, or professional roles as psychologists.

This seems to imply that unless you are schooled and graduated as a psychologist, that you can likely get away with some of this as there is unlikely to be any response for someone who just “hacks” user interaction and ergonomics.

But, optimistically, perhaps these set of ethical guidelines can be shared and built upon by other associations and ethics committee more specific to the communities of UX and UI.

As far as a place to start with for ethical grounding in UX and how to treat users, the APA ethical standard specifically mentions “development of assessment instruments; conducting assessments” as areas covered. As such, it would seem to me that the collection of data in any software or hardware device would count as assessment instruments and the analysis of such data is in fact an assessment of a users psychological profile to be used in some way as determined by the goals of the system being used (as opposed to the goals of the user using the system).

Standard 3.04 may be another good starting point that, while again specifically mentioning psychologists as the intended audience and expected practitioners, might be incite full for guidance on what is appropriate for “phishing” or socially engineering a user through the interface, especially where it concerns the collection of personal data. Paragraph (a) states:

Psychologists take reasonable steps to avoid harming their clients/patients, students, supervisees, research participants, organizational clients, and others with whom they work, and to minimize harm where it is foreseeable and unavoidable.

As far as I can tell, this seems to be the most appropriate reference for my question. I will continue to do some further searching and reading, but I thought this might help anyone who ends up here through similar curiosity if nothing else.



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