Ethics in Experimentation

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Researchers many times deceive the research participants of the psychological experiments on the methodological grounds.  That deception can be on the research purpose, the design, as well as the experiment setting.  The question that remains is whether methodological deception is ethically permissible. Many scholars maintain that experimental deception is not permissible and that the ethical codes of the professional associations that give some grounds for deception should be revised (Herrrera, 1999; Pittenger, 2002).  Methodological deception poses the risk of psychological harm to the participants of that particular research and it also violates their autonomy.


The ethical codes spelled out by the American Psychological Association and the British Psychological Society do allow the use of deception in psychological experiments but with some set limitations and they require that some conditions be met when such deceptive methods are used.  Even though some differences exist between the two bodies, both codes allow for the use of deception in case there are no other effective procedures that can be useful in obtaining the required experimental results when no physical harm is caused to the research participants, and if there is a high significance expected from the results.  Those codes also want the research participants to withdraw from the experiments whenever they feel like doing so and as sensitively as possible when the experiments are over, by providing them with all the require information concerning the purpose, the structure, and the value of the experiment.

Irrespective of the several constraints placed by the professional codes regarding the use of deception; some critiques argue that the research participants do not have adequate protection from the negative effects of deception, and they, therefore, suggest that these codes be thoroughly revised.  For example, Hertwig and Ortman argue that the use of deception should be banned in psychological experiments. It is also crucial to examine the influential ethical concerns of the use of deception in psychological experiments.

The debate on the use of deception in psychological experiments revolves around the harmful effects that this deception brings.  In most of the cases where the participants have discovered that they were deceived on the purpose or the design of the experimental study, they have suffered a great distress. Whether these psychological experiments led to a significant psychological impact on the research participants, is an empirical question that should not be answered be examining only the casual observations or the untested intuitions.  Kimmel (2001) says that many cases exist where the experiment deception does not bring about any harm or discomfort to the participants.

A sensible view that should be leveraged here is that if the deception in the psychological experiments does not inflict any psychological harm to the participants beyond a given threshold, that experiment is permissible.  When that threshold is surpassed, it means that the psychological experiment turns out to be an act of injustice to the participants.  For that reason, one should ask themselves if applying deception can cause any psychological harm to the participants. If the answer is yes, then that deception is not permissible, but if it is no, then that experiment is justified.


Herrera, C. D. (1999). Two arguments for ‘covert methods’ in social research. The British journal of sociology, 50(2), 331-343.

Kimmel, A. J. (2001). Ethical trends in marketing and psychological research. Ethics 2000 Behavior, 11(2), 131-149.

Pittenger, D. J. (2002). Deception in research: Distinctions and solutions from the perspective of utilitarianism. Ethics & Behavior, 12(2), 117-142.


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