Deceiving the Participant: Are We Creating the Reputational Spillover Effect?

By Blatchley, Barbara; O'Brien, Katharine R. | North American Journal of Psychology, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Deceiving the Participant: Are We Creating the Reputational Spillover Effect?


Blatchley, Barbara, O'Brien, Katharine R., North American Journal of Psychology


Deception has been a useful tool in the study of human behavior, and for that reason has been employed frequently in psychological research. However, a number of authors have suggested that the long term use of deception in psychological research might be creating a negative attitude toward the discipline in the participant pool. Attitude toward the use of deception as a method in psychological research was assessed in both experienced and naive participants. The results indicated that experienced participants were significantly less likely to be willing to volunteer for a subsequent study than were naive participants and that college students were more likely than any other age-group surveyed to be unwilling to participate again. These findings suggest that the long-term use of deception in the discipline might be creating the "reputational spillover effect" described by Ortmann and Hertwig (1997).

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Deception has a long history of use in social science research. The first psychology study reporting the deliberate use of deception of study participants was published in 1925 (Cason, 1925; Nicks, Korn, & Mainieri, 1997). By the 1960's, 66% of the published studies in a leading social psychology journal involved the use of deception (Sieber, Iannuzzo, & Rodriquez, 1995). The use of deception in research peaked in the 1970's and remained a commonly used technique through the 1980's and 1990's, with roughly 50% of published studies in social and personality journals using deception in their designs (Nicks, Korn, & Mainieri, 1997).

The advent of the use of deception, and the popularity of its use in social psychology has been attributed to a shift away from field studies and towards the laboratory, and the introduction of scientific control in the experimental setting (Nicks, Korn & Maineier, 1997; Seeman, 1969).

Deceiving the research participant was justified as necessary in keeping the participant unaware of the true nature of the experiment to minimize bias. Often, as Diane Baumrind (1971) points out, the decision to use deception in research is discussed in terms of the long-term benefits to science and the greater good for society that knowledge obtained from the study would provide. The worthy goals are often seen to outweigh the potential for harm to an individual that deception might cause.

Concern over the ethics and consequences of the use of deception in research began with its introduction to the methodological toolbox. For example, Baumrind (1964) expressed great concern that deceptive practices like the ones used in the Milgram obedience studies (Milgram, 1963) violated the trust that should exist between experimenter and participant and risked damaging the public image of psychologists. Kelman (1967) suggested that the extensive use of deception risked creating the reputation of psychologists, as a group, as deceitful. Seeman (1969) suggested that the continued use of deception in research would mean that a growing segment of the pool of participants for future studies would now have a potentially biased expectation of experiments and experimenters. Experimental psychology might find itself at the point where "we no longer have naive subjects, but only naive experimenters" (p. 1026).

Holmes & Applebaum (1970) found that experience as a participant in previous research settings significantly influenced attitude toward future participation. Negative past experiences created negative attitudes toward participation but did not affect perceived effort in subsequent experiments. In addition, past experience, either positive or negative, did not influence willingness to participate in a future experiment.

Several authors have asserted that deception has allowed psychology to investigate aspects of human behavior that would not be accessible to the experimenter without deceit (Broder, 1998; Kimmel, 1998; Korn, 1998). Others point out that deception can be unethical, even immoral, if used to deprive the research participant of his/her right to refuse participation in the experiment, or if that deception violates the implied social contract between experimenter and participant (Baumrind, 1971; 1972; 1985). …

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