Deception (methodological technique)

From PsychWiki - A Collaborative Psychology Wiki

Jump to: navigation, search



Deception is a methodological technique whereby a participant is not made fully aware of the specific purposes of the study or is misinformed as part of the study. Two main forms of deception that may occur in research are (1) the researcher intentionally misinforms the participant about some aspect of the study. For example, a researcher wanting to study how people respond to negative health feedback may deceive participants by telling them a saliva test they took indicates that they may have a disease, when in fact the test was only a manipulation used to create an emotional response and (2) omission of information, such as not telling participants that a study of “Relationship formation with a stranger” actually deals with the specifics of interracial interactions. This type of deception is based on the notion that certain psychological processes may be biased if the participant were aware of the exact nature of the study. A common form of deception is not fully disclosing the true nature of the study until it is over. Here knowledge of the purposes of the study may cause participants to act in less than spontaneous ways and may bias the results. Additionally, the “stranger” in the study may not be another participant at all, they may be a trained member of the research team, called a confederate, whose job it is to guide the interaction based on a script and evaluate the actual participant. In this form of deception, the participants are not misinformed, but they are not made fully aware of the specific purposes of the study. The use of a confederate is another form of deception. In this example it is true that the participant was interacting with another person. The deception occurred because the other person was not another participant but rather a member of the research team, and the interaction was predetermined by an experimental script. In this and other cases, deception can often be seen in the “cover story” for the study, which provides the participant with a justification for the procedures and measures used. The ultimate goal of using deception in research is to ensure that the behaviors or reactions observed in a controlled laboratory setting are as close to those behaviors and reactions that occur outside of the laboratory setting.

Deception and Ethics

Since it is an ethical responsibility for participants to give informed consent, deception can be seen as a threat to the “informed” nature of consent. For this reason, deception can only be used in certain circumstances. The conditions for those circumstances are that (1) no other non-deceptive method exists to study the phenomenon of interest; (2) the study possesses significant contributions and; (3) the deception is not expected to cause significant harm or severe emotional distress. Whenever deception is used, it is the responsibility of the experimenter to fully debrief the participants at the end of the study by explaining the deception, including the reasons it was necessary and ensuring that participants are not emotionally harmed. In certain cases debriefing participants can actually increase the harm of deception by making participants feel tricked by pointing out perceived flaws. However, a thorough debriefing that alleviates distress and explains the deception is usually sufficient. Human subjects committees or Institutional Review Boards, which include researchers and lawyers that review and approve research at an institution must approve the use of deception to certify that it is both necessary and that a plan exists to debrief participants to remove and residual effects of the deception.

History in Social Psychology

The use of deception can be tied to the earliest experiments in social psychology, but began in earnest after World War II when social psychology began to prosper. In the 1960’s and 1970’s many of the most famous and most important social psychology studies involved deception. One famous example is Stanley Milgram’s studies of obedience in which the participants were told that they were to deliver strong electrical shocks to a participant sitting in the next room. The shocks were never administered, although the other person, who was a confederate, reacted as if they were. As a result of critiques of these types of studies, both the type and amount of deception used in current social psychology studies tends to be less extreme.


In the video, personal space (and personal space violations) are represented in a variety of contexts including in the elevator (Elevator Effect) and exhibited by "avatars" in Second Life, which is a virtual world developed by Linden Lab that launched on June 23, 2003. The video implies that psychologists conduct research studies in Second Life by creating their own avatars and interacting with real people (their avatars) in the virtual world.

Was deception involved? The implication of the video is that the participants in Second Life are not aware that their interactions are actually manipulations from an experimenter or that their behavior is being recorded for a scientific study. Thus, the study is certainly involving deception since the researchers are intentionally omitting this essential information. The purpose of the deception is probably because the researchers assume that if the Second Life inhabitants were told that they are part of a psychology research study, then the inhabitants may not respond in a natural, normal manner. In other words, as describe above in the "Definition" section, the researchers are likely worried that participants would not act in a naturally spontaneous way and may therefore bias the results.

The researcher is likely following a carefully thought-out "script" in which they interact with each participant in the same way each time. The purpose is to identify if personal space violations occur in the virtual world in the same manner as the real world. How does this study correspond to the three circumstances in which deception can be used in the absence of informed consent (see Deception and Ethics section above): (1) the Second Life study could not exist without deceiving the participants about the true purpose of creating personal space violations. In other words, there is no other way to study this phenomenon in this context without the deception. (2) The assumption is that the study possesses significant contributions. (3) Does the deception cause significant harm or severe emotional stress? The recorded behavior is whether or not the avatar would back away to regain the sense of person space after perceiving the personal space violation from the experimenter. This behavior is brief, temporary, and causes no last harm or injury. Thus, the deception appears "ethical" given these three criteria. On the other hand, if the participant was repeatedly intruded by the researcher and/or somehow created emotional stress, then deception may not be warranted in this case.

Further Readings

Korn, J.H. (1997). Illusions of Reality: A History of Deception in Social Psychology. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research (1979). The Belmont report: Ethical principles and guidelines for the protection of human subjects of research. Washington, DC.

Sieber, J.E. (1992). Planning Ethically Responsible Research: A Guide for Students and Internal Review Boards. Applied Social Research Methods Series, Vol. 31. Newbury Park, Calif.: SAGE Publications, Inc.

◄ Back to Collecting Data page

Personal tools