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Description: Research ethics in place around psychological studies require that participants be asked for and provide informed consent before they take part in the study. What would you say it mean to provide informed consent? How does this sound? Participants should be provided with a reasonable description of what their participation in the study will include before they are asked in their consent to participate in the study. Sounds reasonable right? How about studies that are going to involve deception, like one’s in which the experimenter is going to give participants false feedback about how they did on an opening test in order to manipulate their mood by telling them did very well or very poorly on the test (when the test was not actually even scored). Would such a study violate the ethical principle of informed consent? Should such studies be allowed, ethically, to proceed? Now how about a real-world example, from the article linked below. Ellen and Frank meet in a night course and have drink a few times after. As the drinks start to feel more like dates Ellen asks Frank if he is married and makes it very clear that she will not participate in adultery.  Frank lies and says he is single when, in fact he is married, and they sleep together. Is Frank guilty of rape (non-consensual sex)? Ellen gave consent to sex, but it was not really informed consent was it? According to law, Frank is not guilty of a crime. What do you make of that and what other situations also skate a bit around the issue of how consent is defined? Think about other possible situations and then read the article linked below for a research-based discussion.

Source: You Were Duped into Saying Yes. Is that Still Consent? Roseanna Sommers, The New York Times.

Date: March 5, 2021

Photo Credit:  Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Article Link:

So, were you surprised by the results of the research reported upon in the article? Most respondents were only concerned when there was coercion or threats used to obtain sex (and therefore with no consent). Certainly, most people would say at a relationship level that Ellen has powerful reasons for being very angry with Frank but under the law Frank is not chargeable even though Ellen’s consent was not fully informed. The research also shows that this is not simply a legal issue as the majority of participants believed that Ellen’s consent was not vacated by Frank’s lie. That, along with the other examples make for some fascinating opportunities for reflection on the laws and social interaction. Interestingly the ethical work around for actually using, rather than just asking about, deception in a psychology study involves first showing that there is no other way to get the desired data without deception; second, a good argument as to why getting the data is important enough to offset the use of deception and; third, that supports must be made available to participants who are upset or otherwise disoriented by the deception once it is revealed after the participation sessions end the participant is informed at that point of the deception. I am not sure how this makes me think and feel about deception in research (especially when you see that some are wondering is the use of placeboes in double blind studies is a form of deception), though, it has certainly got me thinking about the lack of consequences for uninformed consent issues in relationships like that of Ellen and Frank.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What is informed consent and what does it involve in psychological research ethics?
  2. Is the use of deception in psychological research studies something that should be permitted under special circumstances? And if so, what might those circumstances be?
  3. Do you think changes need to be made to our legal definitions of consent across the situations assessed in the search? Why or why not?

References (Read Further):

Sommers, R. (2019). Commonsense consent. Yale LJ, 129, 2232. Link

Eyal, N. (2014). Using informed consent to save trust. Journal of medical ethics, 40(7), 437-444. Link

Beins, B. C. (1993). Using the Barnum effect to teach about ethics and deception in research. Teaching of Psychology, 20(1), 33-35. Link

Miller, F. G., Wendler, D., & Swartzman, L. C. (2005). Deception in research on the placebo effect. PLoS Med, 2(9), e262. Link

Boynton, M. H., Portnoy, D. B., & Johnson, B. T. (2013). Exploring the ethics and psychological impact of deception in psychological research. IRB, 35(2), 7. Link

Athanassoulis, N., & Wilson, J. (2009). When is deception in research ethical?. Clinical Ethics, 4(1), 44-49. Link

Smith, D. (2003). Five principles for research ethics. Monitor on psychology, 34(1), 56. Link

Massoumi, N., Mills, T., & Miller, D. (2020). Secrecy, coercion and deception in research on ‘terrorism’and ‘extremism’. Contemporary Social Science, 15(2), 134-152. Link


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