Deception And Ethical Issues Research Paper

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Deception refers to the study of the reactions of subjects who are purposely led to hold false beliefs. Deception was widely accepted prior to 1970, especially in social psychology. The subsequent rise of research ethics committees and federal regulations caused researchers to rethink their methods. However, some behavior (e.g., aggression, conformity, helping) is difficult or impossible to study without deception, hence deception remains permissible and widely used.

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1. Justifiable Uses Of Deception

Deception may be justifiable in order to: (a) achieve stimulus control or random assignment of subjects; (b) study response to low-frequency events (e.g., finding money); (c) avoid risk to subjects (e.g., by using a confederate to study aggression, who will not escalate hostilities beyond the level needed for the research); or (d) obtain information otherwise unobtainable due to subjects’ defensiveness, embarrassment, or fear of reprisal. Milgram’s (1974) study of obedience to unjust authority illustrates achievement of these objectives: Milgram sought to study the conditions under which apparently decent people obey orders to harm others. He used newspaper ads to invite the public to participate in a ‘learning experiment’—in reality a study of obedience. Volunteers were designated as teacher, and instructed to teach lists of words to learners (confederates) and to give ‘learners’ increasingly severe electric shocks at every mistake. The ‘learners’ were wired to a bogus device that looked like a shock generator; they feigned failure to learn and pain at being shocked. If the experimenter gave instructions and left, the ‘teacher’ did not escalate shock beyond a tingle. But if a high status experimenter remained and insisted that orders be followed, 66 percent of subjects escalated ‘shock’ to lethal levels. (A panel of psychiatrists had predicted that less than 1 percent would obey!) Subjects were visibly shaken, and relieved to be debriefed.

Although Milgram met all four of the above criteria justifying deception, he was criticized severely. He had employed many forms of unacceptable deception.

2. Aspects Of Deception And Ethical Issues Raised

Deception can take many forms, each with ethical implications.

2.1 Failure To Inform

Of the five kinds of failure to inform, two are highly objectionable. No informing typically means that subjects do not know they are participating in a study. False informing means lying or omitting vital details. Both approaches deny self-determination and invade privacy; the researcher extracts information that subjects might not wish to reveal.

The other three approaches somewhat respect subjects’ autonomy and privacy. Informed consent to participate in one of several specified conditions without knowing which condition will actually occur, means subjects can decide whether all of the possible conditions are acceptable hence whether to participate. Consent to deception means subjects know deception may occur. Waiver of informing involves no explicit warning about possible deception. Each of these approaches involves telling subjects what they will experience, and providing debriefing afterward.

2.2 Who Deceives?

The researcher is not necessarily the only deceiver. Third party deception may occur when social interaction is studied, as in research on therapeutic privilege where physicians are observed lying to patients when the truth is deemed harmful. Self-deception occurs when subjects fail to realize that the researcher views them from a different, critical, or unsympathetic perspective.

No informing and no consent, false informing, self-deception, and third-party deception, especially in field experiments, violate privacy, self-determination, and interpersonal trust. Worse, some deception is so convincing that subjects may reject debriefing. Alter-natively, if deceived once, why should subjects believe the next thing they are told? However, in laboratory experiments employing such contrivances as bogus equipment and confederates, it usually is easy to demonstrate the deception and hence to debrief convincingly.

2.3 Devices Of Deception

Three major devices of deception are: technical deception in which objects, equipment, or procedures are misrepresented; role deception or use of confederates; and implicit deception in which the research aim is so unlikely that subjects generate their own misleading assumptions. Such devices, per se, are harmless; they are commonly used in magic tricks and other forms of entertainment. But when combined with certain other features of deception research they may create distrust and cynicism.

2.4 The Research Topic

The most powerful determiner of unacceptability of deception is the degree of immorality and privacy of the behavior studied, the strength of induction, and the degree of upset caused by the combination of these factors.

(a) If the behavior studied is regarded as positive or neutral, deception is less objectionable than if the behavior is regarded as negative or immoral.

(b) The study of public behavior is more acceptable than the study of private or covert behavior.

(c) The study of naturally occurring or mildly induced behavior is more acceptable than use of powerful induction.

(d) To the extent that the research causes upset, it is likely to be considered objectionable.

Upset to subjects may arise from what they thought happened, or from debriefing that leaves them feeling foolish, or vulnerable. Public upset may arise from concern that science condones such procedures. Investigators, assistants, and confederates may be upset about their involvement.

To illustrate the importance of these factors, contrast Milgram’s study of obedience with Isen and Levin’s (1972) study of kindness. Their study involved no informing, no consent, no debriefing, role deception, and implicit deception. Yet generally it is regarded as a positive intervention, not as deception.

Isen and Levin (1972) studied the effects of positive versus neutral moods on by-stander intervention. Students studying in the library were selected randomly to be given a cookie or not, then given an opportunity to help another student (confederate) who ‘accidentally’ dropped an armful of books. Isen and Levin showed that people who feel good because of a lucky occurrence or the kindness of some passerby will return the kindness (to someone else) at the next opportunity, while control group members are more likely to ignore the minor mishap of another.

3. Indefensible Uses Of Deception

An indefensible use of deception is to trick people into participation that they would find unacceptable if they correctly understood pertinent details of the research. Each culture or population has its own beliefs, values, and sensitivities; these must be respected. When full disclosure to subjects would invalidate the research, the investigator must find other ways to evaluate acceptability to the research population. For example, the researcher might ask surrogate subjects (i.e., peers of the subjects), to consider all relevant details of the research including its sponsorship and likely applications, identify any harmful, worrisome, or objection-able elements, and decide whether participation would be acceptable to them.

A flawed rationale for deception in laboratory settings is to promote spontaneous behavior. Lab-oratory subjects, especially college students, typically assume that deception is employed and engage in deceptive behavior of their own (Geller 1982). Subjects are respectful of consent procedures that request permission to withhold some information until after participation.

When the value of the research does not justify the risks and wrongs of deception (i.e., when valid knowledge can be obtained otherwise, the research design is flawed, or the research is trivial) deception is indefensible.

4. Debriefing: Dehoaxing And Desensitizing

Debriefing refers to the removal of the deception after research participation; it involves two processes: de-hoaxing refers to removing any misunderstanding and demonstrating how the deception occurred. If technical deception was involved, an examination of the bogus device is in order. Role deception is dehoaxed by introducing subjects to the real person. Implicit deception is more difficult to dehoax since subjects essentially misinformed themselves; such subjects should be assured that anyone would misinterpret the situation and that the research was designed to produce misinterpretation. The explanation should enable subjects to feel that the research was reason-able, and that appropriate steps were taken to ensure subjects’ privacy and safety. Subjects should be given the opportunity to ask questions and discuss the study, and to withdraw their data from the research, especially if private behavior was involved.

Desensitizing means detecting undesirable emotion-al consequences of the research and restoring subjects to a frame of mind at least as positive as before participation. For example, Milgram’s subjects were induced to reveal information about themselves that upset them; it inflicted unflattering self-insight. Mil-gram desensitized his subjects by explaining that their behavior had been powerfully induced by a demanding supervisor, at a prestigious institution, etc., and that others in the same circumstances behaved similarly. Subjects were offered free psychotherapy sessions in which to examine their concerns and restore their self-assurance and sense of dignity. Since desensitizing efforts do not always succeed (Holmes 1976) studies should not damage self-esteem in the first place.

When studying persons whose typical behavior generally is regarded as negative, desensitizing is unnecessary and dehoaxing harmful. For example, young children typically take things they want. Re-searchers studying stealing in young children, e.g., by making coins available for stealing, should not tell the child the study was about stealing. The researcher’s goal is not to shame, or to accelerate the child’s moral development, but only to study how children behave. The researcher must also be mindful of the feedback given to parents. If parents are informed of their child’s response, it must be in the context of in-formation about typical behavior of children at that age, and about appropriate parental responses to stealing by children of that age.

5. Alternatives To Deception

This research paper began with four research objectives that might best be achieved using deception. These same objectives also sometimes can be achieved via simulation (in which subjects act as if the situation were real), or via ethnographic methods.

5.1 Simulations

In game simulations, subjects take roles under a particular set of rules. For example, mock trials have been convened using real jury candidates, real judges, and real cases, and they are highly realistic. Field simulations lack firm rules, use highly realistic staged settings, and encourage subjects to believe they are participating in a natural event. These can be so realistic that in simulation involving harmful behavior subjects may actually suffer harm. Role playing is, perhaps, the most practical simulation substitute for deception. The role player knows what illusions are created but is asked to act as if the situation were real. Geller (1982), using Milgram’s equipment, had subjects role play the various conditions of Milgram’s obedience experiment. He replicated Milgram’s results!

5.2 Ethnographic Or Participant Observation Methods

These methods, borrowed from cultural anthropology, coupled with self-report, are now often used to study sensitive behavior of people in their communities. The key to valid ethnography is not technical cleverness, but trust, rapport, knowledge, empathy with the culture studied, and good ethnographic interviewing skills.

Despite recent developments, heightened ethical sensitivities, and government regulation, deception continues to be used. Since 1969, lying to subjects first declined then increased. Human confederates have been partly replaced by computers. Little else has changed (Sieber et al. 1995). Whether use of deception will further tarnish the reputation of science probably depends on whether scientists attend creatively to respecting autonomy, providing appropriate debriefing, and selecting the most valid and least objectionable deception methods.


  1. Geller D 1982 Alternatives to deception: why, what, and how? In: Sieber J (ed.) The Ethics of Social Research: Surveys and Experiments. Springer-Verlag, New York
  2. Holmes D 1976 Debriefing after psychological experiments: effectiveness of post experimental desensitizing. American Psychologist 32: 868–75
  3. Isen A, Levin P 1972 Effect of feeling good on helping: cookies and kindness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 21: 384–8
  4. Milgram S 1974 Obedience to Authority. Harper & Row, New York
  5. Sieber J 1982 Deception in social research. I: Kinds of deception and the wrongs they may involve. IRB: A Review of Human Subjects Research 1–2: 12
  6. Sieber J 1983 Deception in social research. II: Factors influencing the magnitude of potential for harm or wrong. IRB: A Review of Human Subjects Research 1–3: 12
  7. Sieber J, Iannuzzo R, Rodriguez B 1995 Deception methods in psychology: have they changed in 23 years? Ethics and Behavior 5: 67–85
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