What is Deception in Psychology

What is meant by deception is an important topic in the field of psychology. Especially, in the case of research, it is a debatable topic as it creates a dilemma as to how fair it is to deceive the participants of a particular research in order to gain high quality information. It is true that since psychology is the study of the mental processes and behaviour of human beings that the awareness of being watched or being used for research can alter the natural behaviour of individuals. It is as a solution to this issue that the deception is generally used.

Definition of Deception in Psychology

Deception can be defined as willfully misleading an individual for a particular gain. When applying this definition in the psychological research context, deception takes place where the research subjects, those who participate for a particular research, are provided with misleading or false information in order to capture the reality of their responses or behaviour. Especially, in behavioural studies, the significance of this lack of awareness of the reality is optimal as it creates the perfect condition of unveiling the reality.

Deception of research subjects is accepted under certain conditions.

• Firstly, deception has to be used if there is no other alternative of gaining accurate information.

• Secondly, it should not harm the subjects either mentally or physically, and

• Finally, once the truth has been revealed (this process is referred to as debriefing, where the researcher reveals the true purpose of the research) and the participants claim for withdrawal the researcher needs to respect his or her decision.

Milgram’s Study

When speaking of the role of deception in psychology, Stanley Milgram’s classic study of obedience bears evidence to the use of deception in behavioural research, in the history of psychology. In the study, he asked the research participants to apply an electric shock on another person if he fails to give the correct answer and, at each failed attempt, the voltage was increased. Even though in reality no shock was given to people, this was the information received by the participants, yet most participants obeyed the commands of the research.

What is Deception in Psychology

The usage of deception is rather explicit as the participants were deceived of the reality of the research. However, despite the fact that this provided accurate and rich sources of data, which were impressive and contributed greatly to the behavioural psychology, there was a lot of criticism as it was considered rather unethical. This is because even though there was no physical damage for the participants, it was a painful emotional experience.

Drawbacks in deceiving participants

Although the deception has its advantages of improving the psychological pool of research and leads to accurate findings where people genuinely react to the situation, it certainly has its drawbacks. In the first place, before conducting research, the informed consent of the participants need to be taken. One of the main objections is that it violates the rights of the participant as the participant would be consenting to a deception and used for research where he or she is not aware of the true purpose. Another claim is that it questions the entire idea of ethicality. Finally, this taints the image of the overall discipline as the usage of deception can be rather demeaning where people formulate negative attitudes to not only that particular research and researcher, but the entire community.

To sum up, it is true that the usage of deception is psychology provides reliable, accurate data as people display genuine behaviour. However, deception should only be used at mandatory situations as it has a number of disadvantages to the researcher, the participants and psychological research community at large. To reduce this dilemma of ethicality, the participants have to be debriefed as early as possible of the true nature of the research and its objectives.


Images Courtesy:

  1. Milgram’s Experiment by Hochgeladen von Maksim (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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