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2.3C: Misleading Research Subjects

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    7925
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    If a researcher deceives or conceals the purpose or procedure of a study, they are misleading their research subjects.

     

    LEARNING OBJECTIVES

     

    Identify two problems with intentionally deceiving research subjects

     

    KEY TAKEAWAYS

    Key Points

     

    • Although deception introduces ethical concerns because it threatens the validity of the subjects ‘ informed consent, there are certain cases in which researchers are allowed to deceive their subjects.
    • Some studies involve intentionally deceiving subjects about the nature of the research, especially in cases in which full disclosure to the research subject could either skew the results of the study or cause some sort of harm to the researcher.
    • In most instances, researchers are required to debrief (reveal the deception and explain the true purpose of the study to) subjects after the data is gathered.
    • Some possible ways to address concerns are collecting pre-consent from participants and minimizing deception.

     

    Key Terms

     

    • debrief: To question someone, or a group of people, after the implementation of a project in order to learn from mistakes.
    • subject: A human research subject is a living individual about whom a research investigator (whether a professional or a student) obtains data.

    Some sociology studies involve intentionally deceiving subjects about the nature of the research. For instance, a researcher dealing with an organized crime syndicate might be concerned that if his subjects were aware of the researcher’s academic interests, his physical safety might be at risk. A more common case is a study in which researchers are concerned that if the subjects are aware of what is being measured, such as their reaction to a series of violent images, the results will be altered or tempered by that knowledge. In the latter case, researchers are required to debrief (reveal the deception and explain the true purpose of the study to) subjects after the data is gathered.

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    Dangerous Elements: Researchers working in dangerous environments may deceive participants in order to protect their own safety.

    The ethical problems with conducting a trial involving an element of deception are legion. Valid consent means a participant is aware of all relevant context surrounding the research they are participating in, including both risks and benefits. Failure to ensure informed consent is likely to result in the harm of potential participants and others who may be affected indirectly. This harm could occur either in terms of the distress that subsequent knowledge of deception may cause participants and others, or in terms of the significant risks to which deception may expose participants and others. For example, a participant in a medical trial could misuse a drug substance, believing it to be a placebo.

    Two approaches have been suggested to minimize such difficulties: pre-consent (including authorized deception and generic pre-consent) and minimized deception. Pre-consent involves informing potential participants that a given research study involves an element of deception without revealing its exact nature. This approach respects the autonomy of individuals because subjects consent to the deception. Minimizing deception involves taking steps such as introducing words like “probably” so that statements are formally accurate even if they may be misleading.