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Deception research

Deception research is an ethical dilemma in itself. Deception in research entails that participants are not fully informed of the purpose of the study. Valuable insight can also be obtained in this way into factors which would never be discovered if all factors and aspects were obvious to the study participants.

Deception research has shown us some of the most thought-provoking and controversial experiments in social psychology. Milgram’s obedience experiments and conformity studies have provided insight into the mechanisms which are triggered under the command of an authority figure, or how group pressure works. Such studies can help to explain why no one intervenes in cases of child abuse or why the abuses in the Abu Ghraib prison occurred.

About The Researchs Ethics Library (FBIB). This article is a part of The research ethics library, offering more than 80 specialised articles on topics linked to research ethics, written by a large number of different experts and professionals. Taken as a whole, the articles shall serve as an introduction to key topics in the area of research ethics. Each article contains additional links to further resources.

Its purpose is to help engender reflection and debate, rather than to create an encyclopaedia or provide universally applicable answers.

The perspectives and viewpoints presented in the FBIB articles do not necessarily reflect those of The Norwegian National Research Ethics Committees; all authors are responsible for their own perspectives.

However, participation in studies where those taking part are not informed of what the researchers are actually studying may have serious consequences for the participants. It is one thing to feel deceived, but it is also possible to experience more severe reactions as a result of what is revealed about oneself. An example is Milgram’s experiments in which the participants were led to believe that they were administering agonising electric shocks to another person (an actor) under the direction of an authority figure. When, following the experiment, the study participants understood what they might be capable of, this was a horrifying realisation.

The principle of freely given informed consent to participation is one of the core ethical principles of research, and may only be deviated from in very special cases. Such a case was the endorsement by the National Committee for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences and the Humanities (NESH) in the spring of 2009 permitting researchers to send fictitious job applications in order to reveal discrimination against job applicants with a non-Norwegian background. The results of the study sparked public debate when they were published in January 2012.

This article has been translated from Norwegian by Jane Thompson, Akasie språktjenester AS.