Deception including in-lab studies, internet or online studies, and more than mild deception studies
The Tri-council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans, 2010, 2nd edition (TCPS2) states that “individuals who participate in research should do so voluntarily, understanding the purpose of the research, its risks and potential benefits, as fully as reasonably possible”. In addition, the TCPS2 specifies that “researchers shall provide to a prospective participant, or authorized third parties, full disclosure of all information necessary for making an informed decision to participate in a research project”. At the same time, the TCPS2 recognizes that there are situations in which the nature of the research may justify a limited or temporary departure from the general requirement for free and informed consent prior to participation in research.
Deception and partial disclosure in research should only be used when alternate study designs would be inadequate to answer the research question(s). The use of deception or partial disclosure in research is considered to pose ethical concerns; specifically with respect to voluntariness, fully-informed consent, and potential related risks to participants. Hence the University of Waterloo Office of Research Ethics (ORE) and Research Ethics Boards require the following conditions from the TCPS2 be satisfactorily met prior to ethics clearance:
- the proposed research involves no more than minimal risk to participants;
- the lack of participant’s consent is unlikely to adversely affect the welfare of the participant;
- it is impossible or impracticable to carry out the research and to answer the research question properly, given the research design, if the prior consent of the participant is required;
- whenever possible and appropriate, after participation, or at a later time during the study, participants will be debriefed and provided with additional pertinent information in accordance with Articles 3.2 and 3.4 of the TCPS 2, at which point they will have the opportunity to refuse consent in accordance with Article 3.1 of the TCPS 2; and
- the research does not involve a therapeutic, or other clinical or diagnostic interventions.
It is the researchers’ responsibility to provide information and materials to address these requirements, through the research ethics application for the proposed research. Also, the researchers must include in the application the rationale and justification for the use of the incomplete disclosure or deception as well as a list of the deceptive elements in the study.
Partial disclosure and deception are critical tools and standard practice in some social and behavioural sciences research. Its use in psychology research, for example, can range from giving participants cursory information about the study in which they are invited to participate (e.g., use of a cover story) to giving participants false information about themselves, events or social conditions. The latter can be necessary approaches in the study of attitude formation, conformity, persuasion, self-esteem, social perception, and stereotyping.
There are legitimate methodological reasons for using incomplete disclosure and deception including:
- to avoid study bias, and
- to test hypotheses about causal mechanisms affecting people’s attitudes and behaviour where full knowledge of the hypotheses could affect the participant’s responses in way(s) that could impact the validity of the data.
These methods may also be used in applied areas of behavioural research such as consumer research and preventive intervention research.
Partial disclosure involves an investigator withholding or omitting information about the specific purpose or objectives of the research study or other aspects of the research. Partial disclosure is also referred to as passive deception or incomplete disclosure or omission. Partial disclosure may also be considered deceptive.
Examples of incomplete disclosure include:
- participants are informed about the purpose of the study in general terms, which are true, but are not given the specific focus of the study which would lead to the investigator’s objectives
- a study procedure is described in general terms which are true, but not detailed enough to reveal the researcher’s objectives for the procedure
Deception occurs when an investigator gives false information to participants or intentionally misleads participants about one or more aspects of the research study. Giving false information or intentionally misleading is also referred to as active deception or deception by commission. Deception can range from mild deception such as a slight misrepresentation of the study purpose or incorrect duration of the study session to a more severe deception such as giving false feedback to participants about themselves or their spouse/partner.
Examples of deception include:
- Mild deception
- misrepresentation of the research purpose (e.g., a “cover story” which falsely describes the purpose of the study, yet gives a feasible account of the study’s objectives)
- incorrect information about research procedures (e.g., instructions for tasks, authors and references for quotes or articles, content of articles or quotes)
- incomplete information about the study investigator(s)
- misleading settings or incorrect duration of study session
- audio or video recording of participants occurs during the study session without the participant’s knowledge or prior permission
- More than mild deception
- false explanations of scientific or measurement instruments
- fictitious information about the study investigator(s)
- false feedback to participants (i.e., giving participants inaccurate information about themselves, others, or broader social conditions such as performance on study tasks)
- use of confederates (i.e., persons presented as participants who are behaving according to an experimental script, staged events that are actually under the experimenter’s control but appear to the participant to be spontaneous)
- false promises (e.g., concerning incentives, rewards, or remuneration)
- misleading information concerning other participants who may be present in another location or who do not exist
- misleading participants about the tasks they will be asked to complete (e.g., initially tell participants they will be asked to complete an innocuous questionnaire, however the study concerns their reactions to or memory of an unexpected but staged event)
Partial disclosure may affect a person’s willingness to participate. For example, potential participants are informed a study’s interest is how doctors communicate with their patients in a Cancer Care Centre when actually it is a study of the techniques used by professionals in breaking bad news to a patient. The actual purpose of the study falls within the more general purpose that was described to the patient; however the participant may be willing to participate in a (general) communication study but may not be willing to be observed where s/he receives sensitive and distressing information from her/his doctor.
The potential for negative impact on participants can vary with the level of deception used and the inclusion criteria for participation. Research studies that pose greater than minimal risk to participants are reviewed by the full Research Ethics Board.
Mild deceptions may involve creating false beliefs about issues perceived not to be important to participants’ self-concept. Deceptions of this type are not expected to impact affect or self belief during the study session; however there may be an impact during the debriefing when they learn about the deception.
Deception can negatively impact a participant’s feelings of trust in the specific study, or about research in general. In some instances, researchers may include a task or activity (e.g., comedic video) or series of questions to ameliorate any negative mood that may be experienced by a participant.
Deceptions that involve creating false beliefs about oneself or one’s relationships or manipulating participants’ self-concepts are expected to create negative affect (e.g., anxiety due to lower self-confidence, upset, feelings of hopelessness or false beliefs during participation and potentially after participation). The impact of a deception that creates false beliefs about oneself may exceed minimal risk to participants if participants have a history of serious psychological distress. After participants are informed the feedback is false, there may be perseverance effects. Negative effects of the false feedback may continue for the participant (e.g., “I know they said the test results were faked, but it reminded me of other times when I’ve performed poorly...”). Special care is needed in debriefing after false feedback.
Negative false feedback typically is not something participants encounter in their everyday lives. A study proposing negative false feedback may be reviewed by the full Research Ethics Board, depending on the type of negative feedback and the participant population.
There may be greater than minimal risk to participants when other forms of more than mild deception are used; for example, misleading participants about the tasks they will be asked to complete.
Deception involving fictitious information which is impersonation or misrepresentation of the investigators is illegal and cannot be used.
Deception concerning the study purpose may impact a person’s willingness to participate in the research. For example, in a study using deception, participants are told the study is about healthy communities and urban planning when it is actually about healthy food choices. If they knew the study was about healthy food choices they may not have participated since their interest lies with healthy communities and urban planning. Upon learning about the use of deception some participants may have negative reactions; for example, feeling that their time and potential contributions to research have been wasted.
Deception studies conducted online (e.g., through Mechanical Turk) should only involve mild deception. For studies utilizing more than mild deception, participants are to be debriefed by the researcher in a face-to-face setting, which cannot be done online.
Researchers who use partial disclosure in a study must debrief participants at the end of their involvement in an in-lab or online study. A post-study debriefing letter (or sheet) is a method by which researchers can provide full disclosure and an explanation for why less than full disclosure was used.
For an in-lab study, the researcher provides a verbal debriefing in addition to the post-study debriefing sheet. See the following section for the information that is to appear in a post-study information sheet and debriefing script. If there was an alteration to the requirement for prior consent in a study involving partial disclosure, then the participants must be able to indicate their consent or refusal following the post-study debriefing.
Researchers who use deception must ensure participants undergo a verbal debriefing process at the end of their involvement in an in-lab study and provide a post-study information sheet. Following this complete debriefing, participants must also be asked to provide consent for the use of their data.
Internet or online studies
For an online deception study, participants are provided a post-study information sheet to read and asked if they have read the sheet. This process is an opportunity for the researcher to provide an explanation of why deception was needed in the study, what the deception was, and provides an opportunity for the participant to ask any questions in regard to the use of deception. Following the information and debriefing process, participants in a lab study are asked for their written consent to use the data obtained in the course of their participation in the study. For an online study, participants are asked to indicate their consent or not.
More than mild deception studies
For studies utilizing more than mild deception, de-briefing occurs face-to-face with the researcher to ensure the participant is fully debriefed and there is the opportunity to alleviate any misconceptions or diminish negative feelings, to re-establish trust in the experimental process, and obtain written consent to use their data. The debriefing should be done with sensitivity and interactively with the participant.
A funnel debriefing process is recommended where the researcher asks whether the participant thought there was anything odd or strange about the study, or something that might have been different than what they were told.
The post-study debriefing script and letter are to include the following:
- Expression of appreciation to participant for taking part in the study
- Probe for suspicion. (Optional)
- Explanation of what participants were originally told
- Outline of the full purpose/objectives of the study and explanation what the deceptions were and purpose of the tasks
- Explanation for why deception was used in the study
- Summary of the full purpose of the study and which aspects involved deception (e.g., use of confederates, use of false information, etc.)
- Expression of regret for deceiving participants
- Explanation that most research studies do not involve deception
- Explanation as to whom to contact if questions or concerns arise about participation in the study
- Request not to discuss the study details and give reasons for not discussing with others
- Reiterate details from the information letter as to how the information collected will be confidentially retained and stored
- Explanation for why another consent form needs to be signed
Sample in-lab and online post-study information sheets, consent form, and debriefing script are available to give you guidance in creating your own.
 Some of the examples are from: Kimmel, A.J., Smith, N.C., Klein, J.G. (2010). Ethical decision making and research deception in behavioural sciences: an application of social contract theory.
 Athanassoulis, N. & Wilson, J. (2009). When is deception in research ethical? Clinical Ethics, 4:44-49.
 Ross, L., Lepper, M.R., & Hubbard, M. (1975). Perseverance in self-perception and social perception: biased attributional processes in the debriefing paradigm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,32:880-892.
 Bargh, J.A. & Chartrand, T.L. (2000). The mind in the middle: a practical guide to priming and automaticity research. In H.T. Reis & C.M. Judd (Eds.), Handbook of research methods in social and personality psychology (pp.253-285). New York, NY, US: Cambridge University Press. http://www2.psych.ubc.ca/`scaller/528Readings/BarghChartrand2000.pdf