Deception Definition

DeceptionDeception 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 may occur in research.

  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.
  2. The researcher omits some 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 but rather 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 as possible to those behaviors and reactions that occur outside of the laboratory setting.

Deception and Ethics

Since it is an ethical responsibility of researchers to gain informed consent from participants, 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 (a) no other nondeceptive 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 of Deception in Social Psychology

The use of deception can be tied to the earliest experiments in social psychology, but it began in earnest after World War II when social psychology began to prosper. In the 1960s and 1970s, 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 tend to be less extreme.


  1. Korn, J. H. (1997). Illusions of reality: A history of deception in social psychology. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  2. 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: Government Printing Office.
  3. Sieber, J. E. (1992). Planning ethically responsible research: A guide for students and internal review boards. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

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