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Though commonly used and allowed by APA ethical guidelines (see http://www.apa.org/ethics/code2002.html#8_07), there is still much debate about whether or not the use of deception should be permitted in psychological research experiments.
Those against deception object to the ethical and methodological issues involved in its use. Dresser (1981) notes that, ethically, researchers are only to use subjects in an experiment after the subject has given informed consent. However, because of its very nature, a researcher conducting a deception experiment cannot reveal its true purpose to the subject, thereby making any consent given by a subject misinformed (p. 3). Baumrind (1964), criticizing the use of deception in the Milgram (1963) obedience experiment, argues that deception experiments inappropriately take advantage of the implicit trust and obedience given by the subject when the subject volunteers to participate (p. 421).
From a practical perspective, there are also methodological objections to deception. Ortmann and Hertwig (1998) note that “deception can strongly affect the reputation of individual labs and the profession, thus contaminating the participant pool” (p. 806). If the subjects in the experiment are suspicious of the researcher, they are unlikely to behave as they normally would, and the researcher’s control of the experiment is then compromised (p. 807).
Those who do not object to the use of deception note that there is always a constant struggle in balancing “the need for conducting research that may solve social problems and the necessity for preserving the dignity and rights of the research participant” (Christensen, 1988, p. 670). They also note that, in some cases, using deception is the only way to obtain certain kinds of information, and that prohibiting all deception in research would “have the egregious consequence of preventing researchers from carrying out a wide range of important studies” (Kimmel, 1998, p. 805).
Additionally, findings suggest that deception is not harmful to subjects. Christensen’s (1988) review of the literature found “that research participants do not perceive that they are harmed and do not seem to mind being misled” (p. 668). Furthermore, those participating in experiments involving deception “reported having enjoyed the experience more and perceived more educational benefit” than those who participated in non-deceptive experiments (p. 668).
Lastly, it has also been suggested that an unpleasant treatment used in a deception study or the unpleasant implications of the outcome of a deception study may be the underlying reason that a study using deception is perceived as unethical in nature, rather than the actual deception itself (Broder, 1998, p. 806; Christensen, 1988, p. 671).
- American Psychological Association – Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. (2002). Retrieved February 7, 2008, from http://www.apa.org/ethics
- Baumrind, D. (1964). Some thoughts on ethics of research: After reading Milgram's “Behavioral Study of Obedience.” American Psychologist, 19(6), 421-423. Retrieved February 21, 2008, from the PsycINFO database.
- Bröder, A. (1998). Deception can be acceptable. American Psychologist, 53(7), 805-806. Retrieved February 22, 2008, from the PsycINFO database.
- Christensen, L. (1988). Deception in psychological research: When is its use justified? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 14(4), 664-675.
- Dresser, R. S. (1981). Deception research and the HHS final regulations. IRB: Ethics and Human Research, 3(4), 3-4. Retrieved February 21, 2008, from the JSTOR database.
- Kimmel, A. J. (1998). In defense of deception. American Psychologist, 53(7), 803-805. Retrieved February 22, 2008, from the PsychINFO database.
- Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371-378. Retrieved February 25, 2008 from the PsycARTICLES database.
- Ortmann, A. & Hertwig, R. (1998). The question remains: Is deception acceptable? American Psychologist, 53(7), 806-807. Retrieved February 22, 2008, from the PsychINFO database.