Overheard: Studies Using Deception

by Amy Davis, JD, MPH

Overheard, a new series here on Ampersand, is a glimpse into conversations, discussion, and debate on PRIM&R’s IRB Forum. No participants or institutions are identified to preserve the mission and openness of the Forum, though IRB Forum members are welcome and encouraged to comment on these posts. To suggest a topic for Overheard, please contact us. If you are not a member of the IRB Forum and would like to join, you can do so here.

On the IRB Forum, people are talking about studies using deception. The exchange offers a glimpse into the significant ethical concerns researchers must consider in using deception in research. Whether you believe that the use of deception is irreconcilable with the principles of respect for persons and autonomy and therefore inherently unethical, or that there are circumstances in which deception is justified, the issue is surfacing more often as researchers find new ways to use the internet and use crowdsourcing to conduct public health research. A recent and highly publicized example of this phenomenon is the Facebook mood experiment.

What is the harm of telling subjects “little white lies” to ensure unbiased data or to encourage participation? From an ethics perspective lies undermine informed consent, rendering the research unethical. From a risk/benefit perspective, depending on the lie, the deception itself could cause psychological harm to the subject. (See Stanford Prisoner Experiment.) Subjects who do not have full knowledge of the purpose or potential risks of the study are not fully informed.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.