Research ethics: Deception

Among the most difficult ethical decisions facing the behavioral researcher is whether of not to use deception. Deception can range from relatively minor omissions, such as not telling people the full story of what you are doing, to outright falsehood about your identity and the nature of the study. To deceive is to deliberately mislead others. The issue is most relevant in experimentation where personal knowledge of the purposes might change people's behavior. masks

Following publication of Stanley Milgram's classic studies of obedience in which unwitting volunteers were asked to apply supposedly painful electric shocks to another person (in reality, no shock was administered and the supposed victim was a confederate of the researchers), the use of deception in social psychological research increased in popularity along with criticism from those opposed to it. Experimenters who employ deception are responsible for debriefing the participants -- describing the nature of the deception, why it was done, why the approach was chosen over other procedures not involving deception, and allowing the participant to express their feeling about what happened.


With full consideration of the ethical and practical problems in using deception, many researchers find instances where they feel it is justified. Impersonation (acting as someone other than oneself) has been useful in understanding life in mental and penal institutions. Researchers have themselves admitted as patients or inmates to see the institution from the inside. The experience would be less likely to provide a true picture if people in the setting were aware of the impersonation.

Consumer researchers sometimes impersonate customers in order to investigate misleading marketing practices. In this case one deception is used to study another. Social psychologists use impersonation to investigate discrimination. Researchers of different races or ethnicity visit real estate agencies posing as prospective apartment renters or home buyers. Afterwards they compare notes to see whether they all received the same offers. This is probably a more valid method than asking realtors if they discriminate among prospective tenants or homeowners on the basis of race.


There are a number of problems with using deception. Even when debriefed afterward, some participants may become angry and wonder whether the researcher is simply practicing a further deception. Often participants figure out what is really going on, even though the researcher attempts to hide the true purpose of the study. Deception may have a negative effect on the participants' attitudes toward behavioral research. People dislike being lied to and research subjects are no exception. Finally, there is the negative effect on the researcher when forced to lie to other people It can produce cynicism and distance from the people being studied.

Researchers should avoid deception as much as possible. It is the source of many complaints received by IRBs. Even when it appears that it might be advantageous to mislead others, often there are alternative ways to obtain information without telling lies. Ask yourself whether it is absolutely necessary to deceive other people or whether the same information could be obtained with full disclosure or through some sort of simulation that people know has been staged. For example, researchers have created artificial prisons and jails in which volunteer subjects spent various periods of time in "captivity." The module on simulation describes the power of role-playing. Diaries kept by people who have found themselves in unusual circumstances, such as that of conscientious objectors who have been imprisoned, provides another source of information. Participant observation is another approach.

Comment on participant risk

The risks to participants in behavioral research should not be exaggerated or over-dramatized. Most surveys, observational studies, and laboratory experiments pose little or not risk to participants. Students asked to learn lists of words can be told the exact nature of the procedures, what is going to be done with the results, and so on. People whose movements are charted throughout the day would be told of the potential inconvenience of having an observer following them around. The researcher may decide to reserve information about how the results are to be used (e.g., comparing the time younger and older people spend on a mobile phone) until the observations are concluded, but this withholding does not increase the risks to the participants, who know that the researcher will be observing their behavior.

The American Psychological Association has a code of ethics for its members. The code is lengthy as it covers competence, human relations, privacy and confidentiality, advertising and other public statements, record keeping and fees, education and training, research and publication, assessment, and therapy. The relevant sections for protecting research participants are 8.01 through 8.09.

The code also discusses the use of animals in behavioral research, especially the need to adhere to professional and governmental standards in the care of laboratory animals. Other social and behavioral sciences also have codes of conduct. See resources for links (if interested).

Next section: Scientific conduct