Negating Deception in Research

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  • 0:07 Deception in Research
  • 2:07 Debriefing
  • 4:00 Example
  • 5:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

Sometimes learning something through research requires a little bit of lying - nothing too big but just enough where the subject is misdirected. But what happens after the experiment? What are your responsibilities as a researcher?

Deception in Research

Using deception in research is no easy feat. Deception means to intentionally mislead, provide incorrect information, or omit relevant information. There are two big components in gaining approval to run a research study that involves purposefully misleading people. Deception in psychological research must be a necessary part of the study, and the possible scientific, educational, or applied value must justify the deception. A researcher must demonstrate that there is no other way to obtain the same results if deception were not part of the study.

To continue a personal preference for the Milgram study, we'll look at this experiment that could not have been done without deception. This experiment created an environment where a person thought they were administering shocks to another person whenever they made a mistake. The shocked person was in another room, so the only contact the subject had was through a microphone. Over time, the shocks, administered through a large, black box, would be increased.

The person being shocked on the other end of the microphone would complain of a heart condition and eventually fall silent. The person administering the shocks would be asked to continue shocking the person even though they weren't responding. The trick was the person being shocked was faking. There were no shocks. There was only a person in a room thinking they had killed someone. Can you imagine walking into an experiment and the researcher tells you, 'You will be reading word pairs and making a buzzing noise. The person on the other end of the microphone will pretend to die.'

A more typical use of deception is the use of confederates (people working for the researcher) in social experiments where you plant them amongst a group of people and have them try and sway group opinion. The second big hurdle to using deception in a research study is planning a way to negate the deception, usually by debriefing.


Debriefing is providing a prompt opportunity for participants to obtain information about the nature, results, and conclusion of the research, as well as taking reasonable steps to correct misconceptions. This is a fairly direct quote from section 8.08 of the American Psychological Association's Ethical Code, and it contains a few particular words.

Prompt indicates that a researcher does not necessarily need to complete a debriefing as soon as the experiment is over but should as soon as possible. This is especially true if the research involves something as dangerous to a person's mental health as them thinking they have killed someone. Videos from the Milgram experiment show the subjects being explained what had occurred during the experiment as they sat in front of the microphone and electrical box. As for the social experiments, if you weren't attempting to put a group of people in a stressful situation, then you could wait a day or two.

Reasonable steps means a researcher makes a sensible and realistic effort. It would be highly unethical of you to put someone through a stressful situation then throw a packet of papers at them as you run out the door. The level of debriefing needs to be on par with the level of stress. The more stressful, the more involved your attempts at debriefing should be. This is where the participants are allowed to ask questions and the psychologist should answer in a frank and open manner.

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