Psychology's Tangled Web: Deceptive Methods May Backfire on Behavioral Researchers

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, June 20, 1998 | Go to article overview

Psychology's Tangled Web: Deceptive Methods May Backfire on Behavioral Researchers


Bower, Bruce, Science News


In Marmion, Sir Walter Scott describes with memorable succinctness the unanticipated pitfalls of trying to manipulate others: "O, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."

The poet's tangled web aptly symbolizes the situation that some psychological researchers now find themselves struggling with.

Consider a study conducted recently by Kevin M. Taylor and James A. Shepperd, both of the University of Florida in Gainesville. Seven introductory psychology students took part in their pilot investigation, which measured the extent to which performance on a cognitive task was affected by experimenter-provided feedback after each of several attempts. Because of a last-minute cancellation by an eighth study recruit, the researchers asked a graduate student to pose as the final participant.

Only the graduate student knew beforehand that feedback was designed to mislead participants in systematic ways about their successes and failures on the task.

At the conclusion of the trials, an experimenter who had monitored the proceedings briefly left the room. Although they had been warned not to talk to one another, the seven "real" participants began to discuss the experiment and their suspicions about having been given bogus feedback. A brief comparison of the feedback they had received quickly uncovered the researchers' deceptive scheme.

When the experimenter returned, participants' acted as though nothing had happened. The experimenter announced that the trials had included deception and asked students on three separate occasions if they had become suspicious of anything that happened during the laboratory experience. All of them denied having had any misgivings, in interviews as well as on questionnaires, and divulged nothing about their collective revelation.

At that point, the experimenter dismissed the students and expressed confidence that they had provided useful data. The graduate stand-in, who purely by chance had witnessed the participants' secret deliberations, unburdened him of that illusion.

In a letter published in the August 1996 American Psychologist, Taylor and Shepperd bravely fessed up to having had the tables turned on them by their own students. In the process, they rekindled a long-running debate about whether psychologists should try to fool research subjects in the name of science.

"Our seven participants do not represent all experimental participants," the Florida investigators concluded. "Nevertheless, their behavior suggests that, even when pressed, participants cannot be counted on to reveal knowledge they may acquire or suspicions they may develop about the deception or experimental hypotheses."

Deceptive techniques have gained prominence in psychological research, and particularly in social psychology, since the 1960s. Moreover, studies that place participants in fabricated situations featuring role-playing confederates of the investigator have attracted widespread attention.

Consider a 1963 investigation conducted by the late Stanley Milgram, which still pervades public consciousness. Although ostensibly recruited for a study of learning and memory, volunteers unwittingly took part in Milgram's exploration of the extent to which people will obey authority figures.

Many volunteers accepted the exhortations of a stem experimenter to deliver increasingly stronger electric shocks to an unseen person in an adjoining room every time that person erred in recalling a list of words. Nearly two-thirds of the participants agreed to deliver powerful shocks to the forgetful individual--a confederate of Milgram's who received no actual shocks but could be heard screaming, pounding the wall, and begging to leave the room.

Milgram's study inspired much debate over the ethics of deceiving experimental subjects and whether data collected in this way offer clear insights into the nature of obedience or anything else. …

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Psychology's Tangled Web: Deceptive Methods May Backfire on Behavioral Researchers
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