Are the main arguments against the use of deception in psychological research valid?

Position Statement – Are the main arguments against the use of deception in psychological research valid?


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Both the APA and BPS allow deception but put very significant restraints on it, for instance touse it only as a last resort). For some psychologists, such as Ortmann and Hertwig (1997), this is not enough: they advocate a “total ban” on deception because participants’ health and autonomy are not sufficiently protected under the current guidelines. Their arguments aboutharm and disrespect of autonomy, are echoed by many others. In this position statement I evaluate these concerns and suggest ways that research designs can respect participant autonomy and avoid harm.

Regardingharm, Milgram’sobedience experiment is usually cited as an example of the damage of deception on participants. However, Elms (1982) who worked with Milgram on the experiment, argued that participants reported a significant amount of distress but not more than would occcur after a dramatic film or an unsuccessful job interview. In contrast Clarke (1999) argued thatthe self-discovery undergone by the participants in the Milgram experiment could be beneficial in the long term but it did not balance out the immediate distress caused by such revelations. Hence, the harm did not occur BECAUSE of the deception but stems from the discovery of having a “dark side”.Deception is simply the mean used to reach thatdiscovery.However, participants may experience without deception. For instance, when engaging inneuroimaging research,where a researcher might identify brain anomalies during a recording session (Bortolotti&Mameli, 2006).

It is worth wondering if we are underestimating our participants’ psychological immune system (Gilbert, 2006). There is evidence that people are “built” to overcome distressing situations,and in everyday life, this occurs often without any long-standing trauma. It should also be considered that the rationale against deception is often more legal than moral: researchers and institutions, do not want the responsibility of causing significant distress to someone and since it is quite hard to predict whether deception in research will lead to an “acceptable” level of distress, it is sensibly used as a last resort.

Regarding autonomy,Clarke (1999) concludes that is it only in a laboratory setting that informed consent is valid when deception is to be used. An issue with this argument is that it might leave us in the position where we have autonomous participants who get continuously deceived in day to day life and are asked to take decisions without understanding all the forces at play – Marketing is a perfect example. Even a mundane task, such as going to the supermarket, is an autonomous decision minefield, where our choices are cunningly guided by many factors, going from the music played (Milliman, 1982), to the figurines on cereal boxes (Musicus, Tal &Wansink, 2015). Then, not only are people deprived of the chance to refuse being deceived, but they are often unaware of the deception.

Psychological research should serve a moral and educational function in unveiling the irrational forces driving our decisions and, for once, in a safe setting where these mechanisms are not exploited, for example, foreconomic gains but with the purpose of deepening the individual’s and the wider public’s self-knowledge (Bortolotti&Mameli, 2006), so that they can make truly autonomous decisions. In short, what is the point of valuing autonomy so highly and then devaluing the importance of self-knowledge?Do researchers really believe that there can be true autonomy without self-knowledge?

The issue of autonomy could be addressed in various ways: for example, taking a biomedical approach, participants to an experiment involving deception could nominate a trusted person to be given all the information about the experiment and take the decision in their place (Patry, 2001).



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