Let’s talk research ethics for a moment.
Would you rather have someone actually take $20 from your payment for taking part in a research project, or would you rather be told – incorrectly – that someone had taken $20, only to later (almost immediately, in fact) find out that your money is safely intact and that the other person who supposedly took it doesn’t actually exist? I have no data on that question, but I suspect most people would prefer the second option; after all, not losing money tends to be preferable to losing money, and the lie is relatively benign. To use a pop culture example, Jimmy Kimmel has aired a segment where parents lie to their children about having eaten all their Halloween candy. The children are naturally upset for a moment and their reactions are captured so people can laugh at them, only to later have their candy returned and the lie exposed (I would hope). Would it be more ethical, then, for parents to actually eat their children’s candy so as to avoid lying to their children? Would children prefer that outcome?
“I wasn’t actually going to eat your candy, but I wanted to be ethical”
I happen to think that answer is, “no; it’s better to lie about eating the candy than to actually do it” if you are primarily looking out for the children’s welfare (there is obviously the argument to be made that it’s neither OK to eat the candy or to lie about it, but that’s a separate discussion). That sounds simple enough, but according to some arguments I have heard, it is unethical to design research that, basically, mimics the lying outcome. The costs being suffered by participants need to be real in order for research on suffering costs to be ethically acceptable. Well, sort of; more precisely, what I’ve been told is that it’s OK to lie to my subjects (deceive them) about little matters, but only in the context of using participants drawn from undergraduate research pools. By contrast, it’s wrong for me to deceive participants I’ve recruited from online crowd-sourcing sites, like Mturk. Why is that the case? Because, as the logic continues, many researchers rely on MTurk for their participants, and my deception is bad for those researchers because it means participants may not take future research seriously. If I lied to them, perhaps other researchers would too, and I have poisoned the well, so to speak. In comparison, lying to undergraduates is acceptable because, once I’m done with them, they probably won’t be taking part in many future experiments, so their trust in future research is less relevant (at least they won’t take part in many research projects once they get out of the introductory courses that require them to do so. Forcing undergraduates to take part in research for the sake of their grade is, of course, perfectly ethical).
This scenario, it seems, creates a rather interesting ethical tension. What I think is happening here is that a conflict has been created between looking out for the welfare of research participants (in common research pools; not undergraduates) and looking out for the welfare of researchers. On the one hand, it’s probably better for participants’ welfare to briefly think they lost money, rather than to let them actually lose money; at least I’m fairly confident that is the option subjects would select if given the choice. On the other hand, it’s better for researchers if those participants actually lose money, rather than briefly hold the false believe that they did, so participants continue to take their other projects seriously. An ethical dilemma indeed, balancing the interests of the participants against those of the researchers.
I am sympathetic to the concerns here; don’t get me wrong. I find it plausible to suggest that if, say, 80% of researchers outright deceived their participants about something important, people taking this kind of research over and over again would likely come to assume some parts of it were unlikely to be true. Would this affect the answers participants provide to these surveys in any consistent manner? Possibly, but I can’t say with any confidence if or how it would. There also seems to be workarounds for this poisoning-the-well problem; perhaps honest researchers could write in big, bold letters, “the following research does not contain the use of deception” and research that did use deception would be prohibited from attaching that bit by the various institutional review boards that need to approve these projects. Barring the use of deception across the board would, of course, create its own set of problems too. For instance, many participants taking part in research are likely curious as to what the goals of the project are. If researchers were required to be honest and transparent about their purposes upfront so as to allow their participants to make informed decisions regarding their desire to participate (e.g., “I am studying X…”), this can lead to all sorts of interesting results being due to demand characteristics - where participants behave in unusual manners as a result of their knowledge about the purpose of the experiment – rather than the natural responses of the subjects to the experimental materials. One could argue (and many have) that not telling participants about the real purpose of the study is fine, since it’s not a lie as much as an omission. Other consequences of barring explicitly deception exist as well, though, including the lack of control over experimental stimuli during interactions between participants and the inability to feasibly even test some hypotheses (such as whether people prefer the tastes of identical foods, contingent on whether they’re labeled in non-identical ways).
Something tells me this one might be a knock off
Now this debate is all well and good to have in the abstract sense, but it’s important to bring some evidence to the matter if you want to move the discussion forward. After all, it’s not terribly difficult for people to come up with plausible-sounding, but ultimately incorrect, lines of reasoning as for why some research practice is possibly (un)ethical. For example, some review boards have raised concerns about psychologists asking people to take surveys on “sensitive topics”, under the fear that answering questions about things like sexual histories might send students into an abyss of anxiety. As it turns out, such concerns were ultimately empirically unfounded, but that does not always prevent them from holding up otherwise interesting or valuable research. So let’s take a quick break from thinking about how deception might be harmful in the abstract to see what effects it has (or doesn’t have) empirically.
Drawn by the debate between economists (who tend to think deception is bad) and social scientists (who tend to think it’s fine), Barrera & Simpson (2012) conducted two experiments to examine how deceiving participants affected their future behavior. The first of these studies tested the direct effects of deception: did deceiving a participant make them behave differently in a subsequent experiment? In this study, participants were recruited as part of a two-phase experiment from introductory undergraduate courses (so as to minimize their previous exposure to research deception, the story goes; it just so happens they’re likely also the easiest sample to get). In the first phase of this experiment, 150 participants played a prisoner’s dilemma game which involved cooperating with or defecting on another player; a decision which would affect both player’s payments. Once the decisions had been made, half the participants were told (correctly) that they had been interacting with another real person in the other room; the other half were told they had been deceived, and that no other player was actually present. Everyone was paid and sent home.
Two to three weeks later, 140 of these participants returned for phase two. Here, they played 4 rounds of similar economic games: two rounds of dictator-games and two rounds of trust-games. In the dictator games, subjects could divide $20 between themselves and their partner; in the trust games, subjects could send some amount of $10 to the other player, this amount would be multiplied by three, and that player could then keep it all or send some of it back. The question of interest, then, is whether the previously-deceived subjects would behave any differently, contingent on their doubts as to whether they were being deceived again. The thinking here is that if you don’t believe you’re interacting with another real person, then you might as well be more selfish than you otherwise would. The results showed that while the previously-deceived participants were more likely to believe that social science researchers used deception somewhat more regularly, relative to the non-deceived participants their behavior was actually no different. Not only were the amounts of money sent to others no different (participants gave $5.75 on average in the dictator condition and trusted $3.29 when they were not previously deceived, and gave $5.52 and trusted $3.92 when they had been), but the behavior was no more erratic either. The deceived participants behaved just like the non-deceived ones.
In the second study the indirect effects of deception were examined. One-hundred-six participants first completed the same dictator and trust games as above. They were then either assigned to read about an experiment that did or did not make use of deception; a deception which included the simulation of non-existent participants. They then played another round of dictator and trust games immediately afterwards to see if their behavior would differ, contingent on knowing about how researchers might be deceive them. As in the first study, no behavioral differences emerged. Neither directly deceiving participants about the presence of others in the experiment or providing them with information that deception does take place in such research seemed to have any noticeable effects on subsequent behavior.
“Fool me once, shame on me; Fool me twice? Sure, go ahead”
Now it is possible that the lack of any effect in the present research had to do with the fact that participants were only deceived once. It is certainly possible that repeated exposures to deception, if frequent enough, will begin to have an effect and that effect will be a lasting one and it will not just be limited to the researcher employing the deception. In essence, it is possible that some spillover between experimenters over time might occur. However, this is something that needs to be demonstrated; not just assumed. Ironically, as Barrera & Simpson (2012) note, demonstrating such a spillover effect can be difficult in some instances, as designing non-deceptive control conditions to test against the deceptive ones is not always a straightforward task. In other words, as I mentioned before, some research is quite difficult – if not impossible – to conduct without being able to use deception. Accordingly, some control conditions might require that you deceive participants about deceiving them, which is awfully meta. Barrera & Simpson (2012) also mention some research findings that report even when no deception is used, participants who repeatedly take part in these kinds of economic experiments tend to get less cooperative over time. If that finding holds true, then the effects of repeated deception need to be filtered out from the effects of repeated participation in general. In any case, there does not appear to any good evidence that minor deceptions are doing harm to participants or other researchers. They might still be doing harm, but I’d like to see it demonstrated before I accept that they do.
References: Barrera, D. & Simpson, B. (2012). Much ado about deception: Consequences of deceiving research participants in the social sciences. Sociological Methods & Research, 41, 383-413.