Skip to main content area Skip to sub-navigation
Skip to main content

IRB Concerns: Deception

While many research studies do not require any deception (misleading of participants about the research), some do. These are most commonly either psychology or marketing studies, and they may deceive participants about the goal of the research, the role of the researcher, what exactly will be happening during the research, or some combination of the three. Deception can be thought of as existing on a continuum between incomplete disclosure (in which a participant is not misled about any aspect of the research but is not told completely about the research goals) and active deception (in which a participant is purposely misled through the concealing of facts or the falsifying of information). Psychologists in particular are clear in their code of ethics that they only use deception in their research if informing a participant ahead of time about the true nature of the study (during the consent process, for example) would lead the participant to change their interaction with the study protocol, thus rendering the information they provided meaningless. Psychologists often refer to this situation as one in which a participant demonstrates "demand characteristics"; that is, they fit their behavior to the experiment's purpose rather than behaving as they normally would. 

Deception is thus necessary for some kinds of research but it is never the preferred way to approach research ethically. It limits the capacity of the participant to truly consent to participating in the research, especially if they are misled about what exactly they are participating in. Therefore, researchers proposing deception studies should always request a waiver or alteration of informed consent (discussed on the consent subpage).

Deception research can also add a layer of harm to a participant's experience of research that is already psychologically or physically harmful; for this reason, psychologists do not use deception in research that has more than minimum risk of harm to participants. Deception cannot be approved if it is intended to trick people into participating in something they would almost certainly not want to participate in, or if it would place them at substantial risk of harm.

Because deception exists along a continuum, there are types of research for which it is possible for a researcher to include in the consent process the information that deception will be taking place and that the deception will be explained at the end of the participant's participation in the research. Such consent form language might look like the following:

In some research projects, the investigators cannot tell you exactly what the study is about before you finish the study. We will describe what you will be doing in a general way. We can't explain the real purpose of the study until you finish. At the end of your participation, we will explain everything that we can't explain now and you will be able to ask any questions you have about the project's purpose and what you did. Even though we are not able to explain the real purpose of the project until after you have finished, there are no additional risks beyond those that have been described in this consent form.

However, in cases where the researcher can claim productively that even mentioning deception in the consent process would be counterproductive, and assuming the research is otherwise minimal harm or harmless, the IRB will approve deception research as long as it has a sound debriefing process for the participant to go through at the end of their participation (unless the debriefing process in turn would be harmful, more on which below).

The debriefing document or process must include all of the following elements:

  • A description of the real purpose of the research
  • If relevant, a description of anything that happened during the participant's role in the research of which the participant was unaware
  • If relevant, a description of any roles played by researchers that were misleading
  • An explanation of why the deception or incomplete disclosure was necessary
  • An offer for the participant to withdraw their information without penalty (except in situations where information was provided on an anonymous survey such as on mTurk and it might cause the participant more harm to be identified than to have their information used; the IRB will consider both options in a situation such as this)
  • Contact information for the researcher
  • The opportunity for the participant to ask questions or work through any confusions or concerns they may have, either immediately following the research and in front of the researcher or later, after leaving the site of the research
  • If the study is ongoing, a request that the participant not tell other people about the actual nature of the study

A debriefing statement template is attached here and on the consent forms page.

Debriefing may occur immediately following participation in research or may be delayed, but in most cases there are good reasons to go through the debriefing as soon after participation as possible.

If the researcher believes that going through a debriefing process would cause harm to the participant in the absence of any significant benefit, the researcher may indicate this to the IRB for consideration and request that there not be a debriefing process.