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Deception is a process by which a researcher decides to either conceal the real intention of a study from participants or take steps to mislead them at the outset. Certain experiments may require the researchers to deliberately lie to his/her participants about the purpose of the study. The utilization of deception in research has generated debate not only in the psychological field but also other social scientists. Some psychologists have even argued that their experiments could not have taken place without deception. Scholars have argued that to an extent, nearly all studies involve an element of deception. The major argument behind this reasoning is that, it is generally not a good idea for a researcher to revel to his participants what he is looking for in advance. Research has shown that only about 10% of studies involve no element of deception.

Ethics are the moral codes that are set to ensure that the members of a given group attain and maintain certain standards of behavior. The codes exist in all scientific bodies but those in psychology are particularly important because of the subject matter of the topic it studies. First, psychology is different with most other subjects because of its unique subject matter which is entirely human or animal. This means that practically, all psychological research involves living things that can suffer both the physical or psychological harm.

Secondly, psychological research also needs to consider the wider community. And finally, certain people may want to take advantage to exploit the knowledge gained from psychological research to have an advantage over others. Ethics in psychology is thus broadly split into three distinct areas. The first area deals with protecting the individual from physical or psychological harm. The second area involves protecting the wider social group from harm or prejudice especially for socially sensitive researches and finally, protecting the animals from abuse by psychologist during the study process.

Should psychologists ever use deception in their experiments?

Yes! It is remarked that psychologists want to create laboratory requirements for situational pressures they deem central to phenomena in the real world. To psychologists, deception is therefore not just an option but in many cases a basic requirement. Many researchers have lied to their participants concerning the study. The researchers must also seek to create the same environment to that in the real world situation.  This will help ensure that the behavior of their participants in the lab situations remain the same as that which the participants might display in the real world situation. Any psychologist therefore uses deception to represent the conceptual cues which are considered of great importance to real-world situations in the experiment. Studies have shown that whenever the participants are aware that they are being observed, they modify their behavior. The result will be inaccurate and fail to depict what happens in the reality.

There are a number of ways though which researches can achieve deception. One way is by giving the experiments general titles during the time they are recruiting participants. This help the psychologists to avoid creating specific expectation that may lead to biasness in the behavior of the targeted participants.  The researchers also control the participants’ expectation by using fake procedures. They give instructions that do not allow the participants to know the experiment’s true purpose.

Another deception trick the researchers normally use to avoid biasness from participants’ expectation is keeping the participants in the dark about the experiments. The psychologists normally achieve this by using a double blind procedure. This is a situation where neither the participants nor researchers are aware of the experiment’s purpose. Plontnik and Kouyoumdjian concluded that researchers must always be careful to avoid revealing too many details about their experiments. Thus deception is the surest way to avoid biasness that may result from change of behavior. A recent survey of literature found out that a half of all the studies done in social psychology used some form of deception.

The Related Current Cods of Conduct

The American Psychological Association

The association acknowledges that there are some studies that can not be conducted without the use of deception. This has been reflected well in the APA’s 2002 code’s provisions concerning deception. The first provision gives the psychologists a go ahead to conduct a study involving deception whenever they have determined that the use of deceptive techniques is justified by the studies significant prospective scientific, educational or applied value. It also states that any effective non-deceptive alternatives are not feasible. Second provision is that psychologists should not deceive prospective participants about the research that is most likely to cause physical pain or severe emotional distress . The third provision requires the psychologists should explain any deception that is an integral feature of the design to the participants. The participants should be made aware especially at the conclusion of their participation. This should not extend past the conclusions of the data collection. In certain situations, the researcher may have to permit the participants to withdraw their data especially if they so wish.

The American Sociological Association

The American Sociological Association’s guidelines for research have given similar provisions to those by the American Psychological Association. Its guide limits the extent to which sociologists can use deceptive techniques. The first provision allows the use of the technique if it is determined that it will not be harmful to the research participants. Such a study must have also received justification from the study prospective scientific, educational, or applied value. At the same time, effective procedures that do not use deception are not practicable. The second requirement is that sociologists should never deceive research participants about significant aspects of the research. Finally, the sociologists should attempt to correct any misconception that research participants may have. This should be done before the conclusion of the research.

The American Sociological Association’s also provides other guidelines. It requires the sociologists to take reasonable precautions to protect the confidentiality rights of their research participants, students, employees, participants and others. Secondly, that confidential information provided by any research participants must be treated as such by sociologists even if he/she doesn’t have any legal protection or ability to dos so. The guidelines also task the sociologists to protect confidential information. They must not allow information gained in confidence to be used in ways that would unfairly compromise research participants. The third guideline gives the sociologist the right to confront unanticipated circumstances whenever they become aware of information that may be posing a threat to research participants.

In these cases, sociologists must seek to balance the importance of guarantees of confidentiality with other principles in this code of Ethics, standards of conduct, and applicable law. Finally, sociologists may not have to ensure confidentiality in observations made in public places. This means that the activities conducted in public or other settings where no rules and privacy are provided by law or custom, are exceptional. Similarly confidentiality is not required in the case of which the information is already available from public records.

The BPS guidelines also suggest that the risks to which the participants are exposed during the study should not be more than they would be in everyday life. The data protection act requires that the identity of all the participants remain confidential. The privacy of the identity and the behavior of the participants must be maintained. The guidelines require that the participants are not identified unless they give their permission. Once this permission is acquired, the participants can better be identified with their initials and not full names.

Discussion of the adequacy of the codes

Numerous problems have been realized in protecting privacy of the participants using these codes. However, such problems arise more often in the field observation and survey research than in laboratory studies. In field studies the observers may study people in public places without their knowledge. An example in this case is a group of individual watching TV at a restaurant lounge. In this case, the researcher may not have to disclose his mission. Another example is when one is interested in studying the issues that are currently being debated by the public. The researcher may simply pretend to be eating in a hotel while listening to the stories people are making. Noting that certain people prefer sharing very secretive things in such like places, such an act may breach the right of the individual. It is clear that such scenarios are not addressed by the codes. In the research field, it therefore means that the more public a place is, the less the privacy one can expect. This is also the same with ethical problems a researcher encounters. The ethical restrictions becomes fewer as one moves more into the public places.

Apart from place-ethics limitation, the codes have also fueled extensive debates regarding interpretation of the principles and their implementation. For example, there has never been a consensus among the members of the APA on the specific wording of the standards for research or their application. Some scholars have also criticized any use of deception stating that it is inconsistent with the requirement of informed consent. However, those in support of the codes say that it is only the early codes that were unenforceable. They say that the rise in social conscience and the increasing emphasis on the protection of individual rights in 1960s brought about a push for relevant research on urgent social problems. According to them, the ethical guidelines established in the disciplines have been transforming with the objects of social research. They have noted that each version of the ethical code has also been improved resulting into more comprehensive guidelines that reflected more current social concerns.


Deception is therefore very necessary in psychological any research especially those carried out in a controlled environment. However, the strategy can be improved by incorporating the ethical issues raised. Some scholars have proposed debriefing at the end of any procedure to inform the participants of the purpose of the research. Debriefing can help inform the participants of the purpose of the research as well as helping to ensure that there are no negative procedural consequences. As argued by some scholars, it is necessary to establish the result that may be realized if the researcher seeks the consent of any participants before carrying out any research. This entails securing the willingness of the participants enabling them to voluntarily take part in the experiment. Such steps can allow the participants to voluntarily participate in a project releasing even more information. It will therefore be interesting to find out the impact of such recommendations on psychological research.

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