As a behavioral researcher, you often might find yourself torn between two seemingly conflicting obligations: For one, your aim is to collect rich and multifaceted data streams on human behavior, cognition, and emotion, which ideally reflect the participants’ unique personality, physical constitution, and mindset.

On the other hand, you ought to make sure that you collect data in a way that is able to guarantee the dignity, rights, and welfare of your research participants at all times. When these two obligations coincide – e.g. when potential benefits of research are weighted against its potential harm to participants – you’re confronted with an ethical dilemma.

Ethical guidelines and codes of conduct govern the procedures and strategies to follow when collecting sensitive data on human behavior, cognition and emotion.

The Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct of the American Psychological Association (APA) contain core standards that must be met by any behavioral researcher in methods evaluation, teaching, research, or therapeutic intervention.

The core guidelines for experimental data collection are:

1. Get Institutional Approval

Academic and commercial institutions require clear definitions of the desired research project, including statements on applied methods and procedures.

Universities typically have a dedicated “Human Research Protection Program” or “Institutional Review Board” (IRB), where you can download forms and receive professional consulting (e.g., see the website of Yale University). Institutional approval guarantees that ethical principles are fulfilled and that research teams perform their studies in accordance with established protocols.

2. Maintain Confidentiality

At all times, confidential information such as name, age, and gender as well as other data – be it medical records or shopping preferences – of a participant shall be protected.

Use coding schemes instead of your participants’ real names, reflecting the respective information in a coded form (e.g., numeric codes with abbreviations such as “Respondent_0001_XY_53” for the first (0001) male (XY) respondent of age 53). If you require more information on anonymous/ confidential/ de-identified subject codes, click here.

3. Obtain General Informed Consent

Before conducting your study, you need to obtain the informed consent of your participants, ideally in written and oral form. Consent forms should use language that is reasonably understandable and also describes any and all risks.

Communicate clearly that participation is entirely voluntary, and that withdrawal is possible at any time. For persons who are legally incapable of giving informed consent, take reasonable steps to protect the individual’s rights and welfare. You can access and download templates on the website of the World Health Organization (WHO).

4. Obtain Consent for Audio / Video Recordings

Particularly when audio or video is collected (e.g., for facial captures), confidentiality might be violated as the footage is likely to be used for conference presentations or printed in research papers. In this case, you need to inform the respondents.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) provides an excellent introduction to this topic on their website.

5. Proper Debriefing

Upon data collection, provide appropriate information about the nature, results, and conclusions of your research (in case the true nature of your study could not be communicated beforehand without affecting outcomes).

Proper debriefing also reduces stress or other negative emotions for the participant, e.g., if embarrassing or socially undesirable actions were recorded. Finally, use the oral debriefing to clarify any open questions and check if the participant understood all instructions.


Whenever research projects involve the collection of human cognitive, emotional or behavioral data, the participants’ rights have to be protected at all events. While the code of conduct provides a valuable framework for your decision how to set up an experiment or design a study under full reserve to your participants’ rights, it, unfortunately, can’t make them for you. On and off in your research career, you might be facing situations where ethical principles are at stake.

In that case, it might be best to communicate your doubts and concerns to colleagues and collaborators. At iMotions, we’re happy to provide you with further information and resources in order to improve your research standards using ethically approved methods and techniques that deliver excellent data quality.

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