IRB Guidance: Deception in Research

The purpose of this guidance is to help researchers identify and plan for the use of deception in research.

Research studies occasionally involve the deception of participants. Deception is typically used to promote scientific validity, with participants provided with false or incomplete information about the research in order to obtain unbiased data with respect to the participants’ attitudes and behavior, when complete or truthful disclosure is expected to produce biased results. While deception can be an effective tool for the conduct of research, it also raises ethical concerns with participant autonomy and respect for persons, as well as regulatory issues with informed consent requirements. 

Defining Deception

For the purposes of this document, deception means the use of deliberately misleading communication with participants about research purposes or activities. Active deception involves intentionally providing inaccurate or false information to participants (e.g. one study team member tells participants that they will be engaged in a cooperative task with other participants, but instead they will actually be interacting with other members of the study team).  Passive deception (i.e., deception by omission) involves withholding information, or incomplete disclosure of information, with the intention of misleading participants about the research purpose or procedures (e.g. the study team tells participants the research is about social interactions when the true purpose is actually to see if participants’ responses indicate they have a racial/gender bias).

Points to Consider When Using Deception in Research
  • The use of deception must be justified by its potential scientific value to the research.
  • Deception can only be used when there are no reasonably effective, alternative methods available to achieve the goals of the research.
  • Deception can only be used with study components that involve minimal risks (as determined by the IRB).
  • Whenever possible, researchers must debrief participants about the deception. This should include specifics about the deception that was used, the rationale for the deception, and a corrected account of the information that was false or incomplete.
  • In cases where the deception involves the description of study activities to participants, the description of the risks that is given in the consent may not understate the actual risks (i.e., the omission of information about the known risks of a research intervention is not an acceptable case of deception.)
Deception and Informed Consent

When a study uses deception, fully informed consent cannot be obtained from participants because they are not provided with enough information to make an informed decision. Therefore, an alteration of the required elements of consent must be requested in the IRB application (see IRB Guidance: Informed Consent for more detail) to request an alteration of the element(s) of consent associated with the deception (e.g., waive the requirement to provide an accurate description of a procedure/study purpose).  However, even though the IRB may agree to alter the required elements of consent, a consent process is still required and the consent document or script must provide a truthful description of the study to the extent possible.

Debriefing Requirements

Researchers must debrief participants about the use of deception whenever feasible. Generally, participants should be debriefed immediately following their participation. There may be situations where debriefing the participants immediately is not possible, such as when it could compromise study results. If that is the case, a delayed debriefing may be requested with appropriate justification provided.  There may be situations where debriefing participants would be inappropriate, such as when the debriefing could cause more harm to the participant than the deception itself. Such cases are expected to be rare, and would require a VERY strong justification to be provided. Debriefing plans should address the following:
  • A description of the debriefing procedures, including when debriefing will occur, who will be responsible for debriefing, and how debriefing will be done.
  • A debriefing document should be uploaded in the IRB application. If debriefing is done by mail, the document should provide contact information to allow participants to discuss the use of deception with study personnel. The debriefing document should include the following: a) an explanation of how participants were misinformed; b) a correct or complete account of the component about which participants were misinformed; and c) an explanation of the reason the deception was believed to be necessary.
Minor vs. More than Minor Deception

Typically, when the deception involved in a study is minor (e.g. the study team gave a more general description of the study purpose instead of the actual full purpose) and the deception does not affect the risks, the IRB is able to review the study at the expedited level.  However, if the deception is more than minor (e.g. audio or video recording participants without their knowledge), the IRB will generally review at the full committee meeting and require that participants are given the opportunity to withdraw from the study. In those cases, information regarding withdrawal should be included in the debriefing statement and any data involving that participant (including audio or video recordings) must be edited to remove the participant or destroyed if the participant does choose to withdraw.

Keywords:deception, debrief, alteration of consent   Doc ID:77917
Owner:Laura C.Group:Education and Social/Behavioral Science IRB
Created:2017-11-02 13:44 CSTUpdated:2019-04-16 12:13 CST
Sites:Education and Social/Behavioral Science IRB, VCRGE and Graduate School
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