The use of deception in psychological research is, at the very least, controversial. After some highly questionable experiments that occurred in the latter half of the 20th century, the American Psychological Association (APA)—in accordance with university Institutional Review Boards (IRBs)—limited the amount and nature of deception that can be used for research purposes.
The Ethics of Deception
Psychologists operate under rules that ensure they are taking into account ethical considerations. Because deception could cause harm to participants the use of deception in research is spelled out in their ethical guidelines. The APA ethics code states that a psychologist should not use deception unless the ends justify the means. Therefore, deception can be used if the outcome of the study outweighs the potential harm of deceptive tactics. It is difficult to make the argument the outcome of research is so valuable that it justifies the use of deception. IRBs, in particular, tend to fall on the more conservative side. No matter the outcome, deceptive research is no longer allowed when similar results can be found without deception or it “is reasonably expected to cause physical pain or severe emotional distress”. Further, if any deception is used, it must be revealed as soon as feasibly possible in the experimental process.
What is Deception?
All deception in research falls under two types: direct or indirect.
Direct deception is when participants are deliberately provided with misinformation about an experiment, including false instructions, staged situations, intentionally misleading feedback, or the use of exaggerations and minimizations.
Indirect deception occurs when participants agree to postpone full disclosure of the true purpose of the research or when the goals of the study are not conveyed to the participant to mislead them. Think of it as lying by omission.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Deception
These are the pros and cons of using deception in research:
- Deception allows researchers to obtain information they would normally be unable to find in a natural setting. For example, an experiment could create an “emergency” situation using confederates that allows researchers to measure people’s reactions to that certain circumstance.
- Deception in research provides the opportunity for real reactions to be measured. If people are unaware of the goals of a study you are more likely to get an authentic response from participants, rather than subjects reacting how they believe they are supposed to behave.
- Deception can lead to suspicion among participants, causing them to behave in a way that they normally would not.
- Deception takes advantage of the trust of participants and creates a bad reputation for psychological research. As a result, it can leave the subject pool biased by making it less likely that certain people will want to participate.
- It can be argued that a participant, in order to give informed consent, must know the true objectives of a research study. It is a matter of maintaining experimental integrity. For these reasons, some may argue that any deception is unethical.
Five Examples of Deception in Psychological Research
Here are five of the most famous examples of deception used in experiments:
Milgram’s Obedience Experiment (1963)
Probably the most well-known experiment involving deception, Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment to measured an individual’s obedience to instructions from an authority figure. Participants were asked to deliver electric shocks to people they thought were fellow research subjects (they were really confederates). Of course, having participants falsely believe they were inflicting pain on others is a major form of deception and would not be allowed today. Even for the time, it was ethically questionable. However, its findings lent an understanding as to the reason why Germans committed the atrocities of WWII.
The Robbers Cave Experiment (1954)
The goal of Muzafer Sherif’s experiment was to see how a group of fifth-grade boys handled intergroup conflict. Sherif and his team brought two groups of boys to a summer camp setting and then proceeded to introduce variables to pit the two groups against each other before attempting to bring them together with a task in which they were forced to work together. The whole experiment was deceptive; the boys believed they were attending summer camp, not participating in a social experiment on group dynamics. To begin with, trying to invite conflict between unknowing groups of people is of questionable ethics. The fact that the subjects were fifth graders makes it even more controversial. Although the experiment exhibited the power of inter-group social dynamics, its manipulation of children lent ammunition to critics of the use of deception.
Brown Eyes vs. Blue Eyes Experiment (1968)
Jane Elliot was not a psychologist. She was a third-grade teacher in rural Iowa. In the aftermath of the Martin Luther King assassination, she wanted to teach her students what discrimination felt like. So, unbeknownst to her students, she performed an experiment. She told them that their eye color determined if one was better than the other. On the first day, blue-eyed children were told they were smarter, cleaner, and nicer. She then proceeded to treat the blue-eyed children better than the brown-eyed kids. The next day she reversed the experiment. What she found was that the children’s emotions and behavior reflected their status within the classroom. Although this was a valuable result, such manipulation of a third grader’s feelings would not be allowed today.
Bystander Effect Experiment (1968)
In the aftermath of the Kitty Genovese killing, there arose considerable interest in the social construct of bystander apathy. Psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley wanted to find out more about why people did not call for help when someone else was experiencing an emergency. They created an experiment where they made participants believe that someone in the next room was having an epileptic fit to gauge their response. They found that people are much more likely to respond when they were alone compared to when other people are around. This introduced the concept of “diffusion of responsibility”. Although this was an important concept in social psychology, the distress it may have caused participants would make it untenable today.
The Asch Conformity Experiment (1951)
The Asch experiment is a good example of the use of deception where the harm experienced by the participants was minimal. Solomon Asch wanted to study how group social pressure affected conformity. He asked people to match the length of line segments with others of a similar size. Subjects were almost 100 percent accurate when matching the length of the line alone. He then had confederates disagree with the participants’ judgments. He found that approximately one-third of subjects then said they agreed with confederates even though the confederates were wrong, thus exhibiting the impact of social pressure. Although deception was used in this experiment, the value of the conclusions appears to outweigh the level of harm experienced by participants.
The Psychological Impact of Deception
Speaking of harm, what is the impact of deception? As we have already discussed, it may dissuade people from participating in psychological research and suspicion may invalidate results. But, does it actually hurt people? Experiments such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, where subjects were withheld treatment that could have saved their lives, are a remnant of the early 20th century and do not apply to current studies.
Like almost any issue, there is more than one opinion. There is some evidence that points to deception causing resentment and other negative emotions. Michael Cheng-TekTai argues that deception in research is never ethical and should not be permitted
However, Allan Kimmel notes that some studies have shown that people who participate in deception experiments “report having enjoyed deception experiments more and receiving more educational benefit from them”. Other researchers conclude that minimal types of deception, such as false feedback or masking the hypothesis of a study, cause little psychological harm to participants.
Future Use of Deception
Deceptive research in psychology has decreased since the 20th century but it has not entirely disappeared. The ethical guidelines surrounding its use are relatively strict and have been effective in reducing risk to participants. It has been noted that a basic debriefing procedure is likely effective in counteracting the consequences of deception as currently used. Because of its advantages and minimal risk, deception will continue to be used for scientific gain.
Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), Psychology | St. Johns University
Master of Arts (M.A.), Social Psychology | American University
Bachelor of Arts (B.A.), English; Psychology | Washington University in St. Louis
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