The Use of Deception in Psychological Research
�When�if ever�is deception acceptable in psychological research? Describe the ethical principles that
support your position. Give an example of the use of deception in psychological research (either real or
fabricated) to illustrate your answer and support your view.�
The Use of Deception in Psychological Research
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Although it may be unethical for psychological researchers to trick study subjects, there
are some cases where the use of deception by psychological researchers may be ethically
justified. Psychological researchers may use deception in various ways including promising the
study subjects some financial reward if they accept to participate in a given study. Any action by
the researcher to influence study subjects to have false beliefs about either an issue or event
qualifies to be a deception (McCambridge, Kypri, Bendtsen, and Porter, 2013). According to
Kimmel (2011), researchers should try by all means to avoid deliberate deception such as hiding
some important information about a particular study in order to obtain consent from participants.
Kimmel (2011) further asserts that investigators should be aware of those occasions in which
deception may be acceptable in psychological studies.
According to Behnke (2009), the American Psychological Association (APA) has
documented a code of ethical conduct to guide actions of psychologists whenever they are
planning and executing research studies while laying great emphasis to deception concept.
According to APA, psychologists can use deception in research only if appropriate non-
deceptive approaches are considered impractical, and when such a move is ethically justified
about its educational and scientific value (Behnke, 2009). In this regard, the use of deception in
studies where truthful alternative truthful techniques are reasonable is completely unethical.
Furthermore, psychological researchers should completely refrain from deceiving study subjects
if they cannot justify their actions on ethical grounds (Youngpeter, 2008).
The best ethical principle that can be used to support the use of deception in
psychological studies is consequentialism ethics. Consequentialism ethics pays more attention to
consequences of an action than the means used to achieve the end result (Jacobson, 2008).
According to consequentialism ethics, an action is considered moral if it generates maximum
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possible happiness and pleasure to all the affected parties. Conversely, an action is considered
unethical if it generates discomfort and pain to affected individuals (Sinnott-Armstrong, 2015).
Psychological researchers normally engage in research with the aim of gathering data that they
can use to make decisions that impact positively on the lives of human beings. For this reason,
by using deception after confirming the impracticality of alternative non-deceptive approaches,
the goal of the psychological researcher is often to generate maximum possible pleasure and
happiness for human beings. In this manner, the move by psychological researchers to use
deception in research is justified under consequentialism ethics (McCambridge et al., 2013).
A good example of the use of deception in psychological studies is providing study
subjects with false information concerning a given study, and at the same time using financial
incentives to influence them to take part in the study (Tai, 2012). Assume that a psychological
researcher is interested in studying the impact of emotions on people’s abilities to make
decisions. Due to privacy concerns associated with such a study, the researcher may feel that
very few people will volunteer to take part in the study if they are told the truth about what the
study entails. Therefore, to attract a significant number of subjects to participate in the study, the
psychological researcher may choose to deceive potential subjects that the study will involve
general discussion but not anything to do with emotional assessment. The psychological
researcher will consider such a deceptive move successful after a large number of subjects will
have accepted to become study participants (Tai, 2012).
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Behnke, S. (2009). Reading the ethics code more deeply.
Jacobson, D. (2008). Utilitarianism without consequentialism: The case of John Stuart Mill. The
Philosophical Review, 117(2): 159-191.
Kimmel, A. J. (2011). Deception in psychological research: A necessary evil? The British
Psychological Society, 24: 580-585.
McCambridge, J., Kypri, K., Bendtsen, P. & Porter, J. (2013). The use of deception in public
health behavioral intervention trials: A case study of three online alcohol trials. The
American Journal of Bioethics, 13(11): 39-47.