Use of Deception in Research

While exploring your area of interest may require misleading or not completely informing your subjects about the true nature of your research, as a general rule, serious deception should be avoided whenever possible, since it jeopardizes the integrity of informed consent. Federal regulations prohibit the use of deceptive techniques that place subjects at greater than minimal risk. The Institutional Review Board will review any protocol that uses deception very closely.

Deception includes, but is not limited to:

  • Intentionally misleading participants about their status
  • Giving false information about the investigators or the research purpose
  • Omitting information about the real purpose of the research

For research involving deception:

  1. the use of deception must be justified in the protocol to show that the research cannot be performed in the absence of deception and the benefits of the research will sufficiently outweigh any risks that deception may create;
  2. research participants cannot be deceived about significant aspects of the research that would affect their willingness to participate or that would cause them physical or emotional harm; and
  3. deception must be explained to participants (debriefed) as early as feasible. A debriefing script must be included in the protocol and should include a detailed description of the ways in which deception was used and why; when and by whom the debriefing will be administered should also be included; and
  4. true “informed consent” cannot be given if the true nature of the research is deceptively presented. This situation is dealt with administratively via a waiver of portions of the information consent regulations.

Research employing deception may not be reviewed as “Exempt”.

Deceptive research that involves mild deception [as determined by the IRB] or omission (e.g., participants not informed of the true purpose of the research) where the topic is not sensitive and the subjects are not vulnerable can be reviewed as “Expedited”.

All other deceptive research will be reviewed as “Non-exempt with Full Committee Review”.

The IRB may suggest that the investigator add a sentence to the consent form such as “Research designs often require that the full intent of the study not be explained prior to participation. Although we have described the general nature of the tasks that you will be asked to perform, the full intent of the study will not be explained to you until after the completion of the study.”

Investigators may be asked to include an option for participants to withdraw their data from the study after they learn the true nature of the research, if it is of a sensitive nature.