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Ethical Aspects of Research Involving Deception

Deception in research can occur by omission (an important aspect of the study is withheld from the participant) and commission (the participant is misled about the true purpose of the research). When deception is a component of a research design, its incorporation must be justified as a necessary part of the study. Here are some aspects that can be considered when completing your IRB application:

  • Does the deception improve the internal or external validity of the study? Sometimes subjects will change their behavior or responses to a study if the true nature of the investigation was known prior to participating. This can harm the study’s internal or external validity.
  • Has this deception design been used in a previous study? If so, noting this and reporting on any harm (or lack thereof) is useful.
  • Were alternative procedures considered and why were these rejected?

Since deception by definition implies a lack of full informed consent prior to research participation, debriefing becomes an important ethical component. Debriefing involves explaining to the subjects the true nature of the study after their participation. These aspects should be considered:

  • How will subjects be debriefed?
  • Who will debrief them?
  • When will the debriefing occur (immediately following participation, partial delay, full delay)? Be sure to justify any delay.

Will the debriefing be full (all deceptive aspects of the study revealed) or partial (some deceptive aspects will remain unexplained)? Be sure to justify any partial debriefing. For example, would the subject be harmed in any way by full debriefing?

Addressing whether the presence of deception increases or does not change the risk of harm to the participant will be an important consideration. Finally, making sure the subject is free to withdraw his or her data from the study once debriefing has occurred is also an important aspect of voluntary participation.