Methodological requirements of a study may make the use of concealment or deception necessary. Before conducting such a study, the investigator has a special responsibility to (1) determine whether the use of such techniques is justified by the study's prospective scientific, educational, or applied value; (2) determine whether alternative procedures are available that do not use concealment or deception; and (3) ensure that the participants are provided with sufficient explanation as soon as possible. (APA, 1982, p. 6)
As noted in Principle D, sometimes, in order to obtain valid data, it may be necessary to conceal important information from participants; in still other cases, it may be necessary to misinform (i.e., deceive) them about certain aspects of the research. In Principle E, we focus on deception. The serious ethical dilemma is that participants may have chosen not to take part in the experiment had they known the truth about it. The investigator has an increased obligation to consult with others about the ethical implications of the inquiry (see Principle A); and, he or she should seek advise from colleagues about methodological and theoretical issues in hopes of devising an alternative procedure that can produce valid data without compromising the principle of informed consent.
Deception might occur in a study designed to explore how failure on one task affects subsequent task performance; it may be necessary to lead a subject to believe that he or she performed poorly on the first task, whether or not that was actually the case. The potential for harm is perhaps even greater than with concealment. It is one thing not to be told; it may be a very different matter if one feels one has been "lied to." Upon learning of the misinformation, the participant may come to think badly, not only about the research itself, but perhaps also about the entire field of psychology. Even more seriously, his or her faith in open and honest relationships and the goodness of people may be compromised. While complaints to ethics committees are infrequent, the most common one involves "intensely negative reactions to being purposely misled" (Koocher & Keith-Spiegler, 1998, p. 421). The investigator must prepare for this outcome. To minimize the impact of deception when it becomes known to participants, the investigator must be willing and able to justify the scientific merit of the research to them. He or she should inform them that their right to withdraw from the study at any time includes the right to withdraw their data. Finally, the investigator must be prepared to take steps to eliminate any harm to them that resulted from their involvement in the study (see Principle I).
Should an investigator decide to employ deception, there are several procedures he or she should consider using in conjunction with it. First, there is the "quasi-control" technique, which can help determine the minimal amount of deception required to maintain the scientific integrity of a study (Kimmel, 1996). For example, the investigator might conduct a pilot study using a manipulation that is less deceptive than the one originally planned. This would be followed by an exhaustive post-investigative questioning of participants to ascertain their perceptions and beliefs about the research situation. If their answers indicate an unawareness of the demand cues, then employing the less deceptive procedure would seem ethically more appropriate.
Second, there is the "assumed consent" technique, which can assist the investigator in anticipating deleterious aftereffects of deception (Cozby, 1977). Potential participants, who are not actually exposed to the experimental protocol, are provided with a full and accurate description of the nature of the research, including the deception; then, they are asked if they would agree to participate. Their responses help the investigator predict how actual participants will react upon learning of the deception. If a certain percentage of potential participants say they would refuse (perhaps greater than 5%), then proceeding with the research as presented to them would be ill-advised.
Third, there is "forewarning," which could be considered a less serious violation of Principle D. Volunteers are told as part of the informed consent protocol that the study may involve deception, but the exact details will not be divulged until debriefing(Kimmel, 1996). For example, college students, when asked to join a subject pool, may be informed that some of the studies conducted within the department may require deceiving them, without specifically identifying those that do. In essence, with forewarning, participants agree to be deceived. Concerns have been expressed that such prior knowledge may influence participants' responses during an experiment, although the evidence seems to suggest otherwise(Kimmel, 1996).
Informed consent is obtained from the parents of all participants. The study proceeds and is completed as planned. One of the children, upon learning that she had been tricked by the "stranger" in the schoolyard, is upset at her homeroom teacher for allowing this to happen. She comments that she won't believe anything the teacher tells her ever again. She reacts in the same way to her parents when she discovers that they knew about this all along.
As a preliminary measure, Sally visits a class of 25, 1st grade children not part of the subject population, and explains the study to them in easy-to-understand language. She asks them what they think about it. Most of the children say it's a great idea and that they would have liked to have been part of it. One child, however, says it's not right to trick kids like that. Sally spends several days thinking about what the children said, and incorporates their feedback into her research. Informed consent is obtained from the parents of all participants. Part of the information provided to parents is the small possibility that their child could come to distrust adults and what corrective action would be taken in this event. The study is completed as planned. One of the children, upon learning that she had been tricked by the "stranger" in the schoolyard, is upset at her homeroom teacher for allowing this to happen. She comments that she won't believe anything the teacher tells her ever again. She reacts in the same way to her parents when she discovers that they knew about this all along. The child is referred to the school counselor, who, through previous consultation with Sally, knew about the study and its risks. The counselor is well prepared to deal with the child's reaction.
While it is the parents who give the informed consent, it is important to remember that from the children's perspective they are the ones being deceived. The abduction situation during the Generalization Probe is staged, but the children do not know this. Deceiving the children during the Generalization Probe is perhaps unavoidable if Sally hopes to conduct a realistic test. In the first item, one child is upset upon learning the truth and very likely would not have agreed to participate had she known what would happen. She may now distrust what she is told by adults, and her relationships with at least three of them (i.e., her homeroom teacher and two parents) appears to be damaged.
In the second item, Sally takes the issue of deceiving the children more seriously. She employs the "assumed consent" procedure described in the discussion above. Given the children's responses during her pre-inquiry meeting with them, Sally decides that the risks of deception are small and goes ahead with the study. However, she is now alerted to the fact that learning of the deception could disturb some 1st grade children. Knowing this allows her to more fully enlighten the parents about the potential risks involved in her research (see Principle D) and to plan corrective measures (i.e., special arrangement with school counselor) should any child respond in this way (Principle I).