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Deception: Sometimes, especially in behavioral research, researchers plan to withhold information about the real purpose of the research or even to give subjects false information about some aspect of the research.  Deception presents challenges for IRB review because of its interference with the process of informed consent and general ethical considerations. 

When planning any study using deception, researchers should consider the following:

  1. Is deception absolutely necessary to conduct the study?
  2. Would participants be less likely to participate if they knew the withheld information?
  3. Is the deception likely to upset or inflict any kind of harm to participants?
  4. How will subjects be debriefed and is the debriefing adequate?

If deception is found to be scientifically and ethically justified, after the research is conducted, subjects must be fully debriefed.  Debriefing can be a formal process that includes assessment of the subject’s reaction to the deception, or an informal discussion.  Subjects should receive: (a) an explanation of all truths and falsehoods, (b) be informed of reasons the deceptions were necessary, and (c) be reassured that their reactions to the deceptions were normal.  Regardless, subjects must have the opportunity to withdraw from the study and have their data removed as well.

Some professional organizations, such as the American Psychological Association, consider deception undesirable except in the rarest of cases.  Strong justification must be provided for procedures calling for either concealment or deception of the research activities. Participants must be fully informed at the conclusion of the activities, preferably with an opportunity to withdraw their data if they are bothered by the concealment or deception.

APA Code of Ethics

Deception in Research

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

(b) Psychologists never deceive research participants about significant aspects that would affect their willingness to participate, such as physical risks, discomfort, or unpleasant emotional experiences.

(c) Any other deception that is an integral feature of the design and conduct of an experiment must be explained to participants as early as is feasible, preferably at the conclusion of their participation, but no later than at the conclusion of the research.


(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.

Audio, video, and photographic recordings:

Recording the voice and/or image of research participants creates a type of record that requires unique handling and storage, particularly if the content may be considered sensitive. As with all research procedures, the dignity of human subjects should be respected. Therefore, only what is necessary for the purpose of the study should be recorded. Research subjects must be informed that a recording will be made, and be provided with information about the storage, confidentiality, and future use of the recording.

If a research protocol involves the recording of subjects, the researcher must include the following information in the application and informed consent form for review by the IRB:

  • Type of recording that will be utilized
  • Specific identifiers that will be recorded, (e.g., partial facial features, full facial features, subject's name)
  • People who will have access to the recording(s)/image(s);
  • Mechanisms in place to protect the confidentiality of the person(s) being recorded;
  • Information about when the recording(s)/image(s) will be destroyed or that recording(s)/image(s) will be kept indefinitely; and
  • Use(s) of the recording(s)/image(s), including educational or commercial purposes, use in publications or presentations.

Internet Research

Internet-based research with human participants are developing at a rapid rate. As this method becomes more widespread, researchers face new challenges for protection of human subjects.  Internet based surveys require careful scrutiny in order to adequately protect the anonymity and confidentiality of subjects.  Surveys need provisions for excluding research participants who are under the age of 18.  Researchers must provide potential participants and IRB with the following:

  1. Explain process of data transmission/encryption
  2. Address efforts in place to protect data

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