Deception and/or Withholding Information from a Participant

For some studies, in order to obtain a true response from a participant, the participant is told something that isn’t true.  Deception studies provide participants with an alternative explanation for the purpose of the study or provide them with misleading information about the study. Some studies may not directly deceive the participant but will withhold some information, such as the reason why a participant was selected for the study. Not providing the participant with accurate information contradicts the idea that participants should be informed about a study in order to make the best decision as to whether they should participate. Thus it is necessary that additional safeguards be in place in order to conduct a study with deceptive elements, including providing an appropriate consent form before the study and a debriefing session with a post-debrief consent form, which allows the participant to consent again after they learn the true nature of the study.

When is Deception Appropriate?

The APA (American Psychological Association) Ethics Code (2002) includes the following regarding deception:

5.01 Avoidance of False or Deceptive Statements
(a) Public statements include but are not limited to paid or unpaid advertising, product endorsements, grant applications, licensing applications, other credentialing applications, brochures, printed matter, directory listings, personal resumes or curricula vitae, or comments for use in media such as print or electronic transmission, statements in legal proceedings, lectures and public oral presentations, and published materials. Psychologists do not knowingly make public statements that are false, deceptive, or fraudulent concerning their research, practice, or other work activities or those of persons or organizations with which they are affiliated.

(b) Psychologists do not make false, deceptive, or fraudulent statements concerning (1) their training, experience, or competence; (2) their academic degrees; (3) their credentials; (4) their institutional or association affiliations; (5) their services; (6) the scientific or clinical basis for, or results or degree of success of, their services; (7) their fees; or (8) their publications or research findings.

(c) Psychologists claim degrees as credentials for their health services only if those degrees (1) were earned from a regionally accredited educational institution or (2) were the basis for psychology licensure by the state in which they practice.

8.07 Deception in Research
(a) Psychologists do not conduct a study involving deception unless they have determined that the use of deceptive techniques is justified by the study's significant prospective scientific, educational, or applied value and that effective nondeceptive alternative procedures are not feasible.

(b) Psychologists do not deceive prospective participants about research that is reasonably expected to cause physical pain or severe emotional distress.

(c) Psychologists explain any deception that is an integral feature of the design and conduct of an experiment to participants as early as is feasible, preferably at the conclusion of their participation, but no later than at the conclusion of the data collection, and permit participants to withdraw their data. (See also Standard 8.08, Debriefing.)

8.08 Debriefing
(a) Psychologists provide a prompt opportunity for participants to obtain appropriate information about the nature, results, and conclusions of the research, and they take reasonable steps to correct any misconceptions that participants may have of which the psychologists are aware.

(b) If scientific or humane values justify delaying or withholding this information, psychologists take reasonable measures to reduce the risk of harm.

(c) When psychologists become aware that research procedures have harmed a participant, they take reasonable steps to minimize the harm.

In other words, researchers should not use deception unless it is the best and only feasible method, it will not cause pain or distress, and participants will have the opportunity to understand the deception as soon as possible with the option to withdraw their data should they so choose.

Deception and the Consent Process

Deception becomes problematic for the informed consent process because at some level the participant can’t be fully informed for the study to work.  However, the Board requires the following for the consent process in a deception study:

  • The consent form is not part of the deception. Although your description of “What you will do” won’t have the entire detail of the study, you should provide as much information as possible.  The information provided on the consent form should be true information, not information that supports the deception.  If there are elements that may make a person uncomfortable or put them at any physical risk, you should warn participants, even in vague terms. 
  • Consent is an on-going process. Even though a participant has given their okay to participate, monitor their progress throughout the study. If there are signs that the participant is becoming upset or frustrated, check with the participant to see if he or she still wants to continue.
  • The participant is provided with a debriefing session, debriefing statement, and post-debrief consent form after the study is complete.  At some point in the study, usually after their participation is complete, participants must be made aware of the full nature of the study and the deception involved.  The Board requires that you provide a debriefing session with the participants to explain the study.  As part of this session, you should provide a debriefing statement which outlines the full nature of the study (this is required in particular for studies that involve participants from the Psychology Participant Pool). As part of the debriefing session, make sure that the participant is okay, that he or she isn’t showing signs of emotional distress, etc. For a benign deception, most participants likely won’t be upset, but more intense deception activities may require an in-depth debriefing process. After the participants are fully debriefed, you are required to provide a post-debrief consent form which asks for participants to again consent to participate in the study.  Participants have the option, after learning the true nature of the study, to decide not to allow their data to be used in the study. 
  • If the participant withdraws from the study prior to the study’s completion, he or she still receives the debriefing period. Regardless of whether a participant completes the study, it is important that they are fully informed of the nature of the study. It is appropriate that you provide a withdrawing participant with a debriefing form and they should receive the same debriefing process given as if they completed the study. If the consent form states that the data will be destroyed if a participant withdraws, the participant won’t need the post-debrief consent form as their information will be removed from the study anyway.  If this is not in the consent form, you should provide them with a post-debrief consent form.
Post-Deception Debriefing Session

A debriefing session takes place after a participant completes their portion of the study (or when a participant decides to withdraw from a study before the study is complete). There are two types of debriefing sessions, an educational debriefing session and a post-deception debriefing session. Both sessions will function in essentially the same manner; i.e. the researcher will meet with the participant after their participation ends to discuss the study and provide the participant with a written debriefing statement. The purpose of an educational debriefing session is to provide a participant with educational feedback regarding the study and is required for studies using participant pools (please see Participant Pools: Educational Debriefing Sessions for more information).

The same education information about the study may also be included in a post-deception debriefing session, but the purpose of this session is to also discuss any deception in a studyprovide a full explanation of the purpose of the study, and explain why a participant was deceived. This method may also be used for participants who were involved in a study where the study was potentially upsetting or concerning, and the debriefing session will be used to help the participant better understand the context for their upsetting experience as well as help the researcher gauge the participant’s response to see if any additional help is needed to ameliorate the study’s affects. A carefully conducted debriefing session can help a participant to gain meaning from their experience, which can significantly improve a participant’s ability to handle even a stressful and/or upsetting experience, helping reduce any lasting impact from the study.

The debriefing session should be considered a secondary consent session. You will give the participant a post-deception consent form. Now that the participant understands the full scope of the study, the participant has the opportunity to decide whether he or she wants to include their data in the study. Unless other circumstances disallow it, ideal debriefings are done verbally and interactively with participants (in addition to providing the standard written debriefing). A written debriefing statement should always use non-technical language and provide participants with a clear sense of the main question and the importance of the answer.

Information to Include in the Debriefing Statement

The debriefing statement needs to explain three elements:

  1. Why the experiment was developed and why the deception was necessary.
  2. What the current research says about the topic, which includes providing reference materials that the participants can reasonably access (if you have an academic and non-academic population, you may need to provide more than one version of the debriefing statement or make sure that the references can be accessed by the least educated of the population).
  3. Any additional resources that would be useful for the participant. Resources need to be appropriate and accessible for the participants. For example, if you are conducting a study on parenting, you could include community resources for parenting classes or recommendations for parenting guides.

Please keep the information clear and concise, and make sure to include contact information for the IRB-SBS.

Sample Debriefing Statement

In this study, we told you that you would receive a blue sticker and then we would ask you to report about how you felt about the sticker. Instead, we gave you a red sticker and told you that your friend took the last blue sticker.  However, this was not true; your friend didn’t take the last blue sticker. We did not tell you the full nature of the experiment because we wanted to gauge your honest reaction to the news that your friend took your sticker.

Stickers, and the way that friends react to them, provide interesting insights into interpersonal relationships. In previous studies, such as the Milgram Blue study, blue was found to be particularly desirable, thus it was chosen in order to evoke a stronger response. We are interested in learning if there is a correlation between individuals who are more capable of negotiating the lack of a blue sticker and their ability to maintain a friendship.

Please know that your friend was not involved in this study and had nothing to do with the blue sticker. It is important that you do not let this incident become an issue in your relationship. If you feel that you didn’t negotiate the loss of a sticker in a positive way, this may be an opportunity to evaluate your friendship and learn what you can do to better handle this situation should it arise. The “Sticker Group” is an informal friendship counseling group available for UVa students; for more information, see their website: If you have further concerns, please contact the researcher (name, contact information) to discuss any questions about the research. If you have concerns about the way you were treated as a participant in this study, please contact the IRB-SBS: Tonya Moon, Ph.D., Chair, Institutional Review Board for the Social and Behavioral Sciences, One Morton Drive, Suite 500, University of Virginia, P.O. Box 800392, Charlottesville, VA 22908-0392. Telephone: (434) 924-5999.

References: Harper, K., & Gasp, G. L. (2009). Do blue stickers make blue friends? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 790 - 875.

Keen, K., & Garph, M. L. (1871). Where have all the blue stickers gone? How to make friends worth making. Psychological Science, 19, 41-48.

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