A Study in Deception: Psychology's Sickness

For many social scientists, deceptive research methods are accepted as a necessary evil.
stef thomas/Flickr

Are meat eaters more selfish than vegetarians? Do chaotic situations promote stereotyping? Do we feel smarter when those close to us win awards? These and other intriguing questions have been recently addressed by the research of prominent Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel. Just 15 years after receiving his PhD with honors in 1997, Stapel had published over 130 scientific papers, received a career trajectory award from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology, and risen to become dean of the faculty at his university. In 2011, however, it began to dawn on his students that there was just one problem with his research: he was making up the data.

An ongoing investigation by his university has so far revealed that Stapel fabricated the data for no fewer than 55 of his papers. This has led many prominent scientific journals, including Science, to issue retractions. Stapel has since publically apologized to his colleagues and students. He also published a memoir, Derailed, in which he recounted his personal descent into scientific misconduct. Fellow psychologists have characterized it as "priceless and revealing," especially its "unexpectedly beautiful" final chapter, though they also note that it is rife with plagiarized lines from the writings of Raymond Carver and James Joyce.

Before 1950 only about 10 percent of articles in social psychology journals involved deceptive methodology. By the 1970s it was over 50 percent.

How did such an internationally recognized psychologist, a man whose work was featured in The New York Times and Time, become entangled in such a web of deception? Most of us would like to suppose that the appearance of deception in a scientific field such as psychology is a fluke, the work of a rogue researcher on the fringes of the discipline. Yet the real roots of the problem are deep and widely spread. The problem goes to the core of contemporary psychology: Deception has been accepted by many psychological researchers as a necessary evil in the pursuit of truth.

Consider the following account.

Beth is a sophomore psychology major at a large urban research university. As a requirement for her introductory psychology course, she volunteered as a subject for a study examining the difference between communication that takes place online and in person. A pair of graduate students dressed in white lab coats led her to a small cubicle, where she read a short article about the history of medicine and discussed it in a chat room with someone she was told was another student. She was surprised when her chat partner expressed disbelief about the accomplishments of an African American researcher, but she brushed off the remark and finished her assignment. Afterwards, a third graduate student took her into a different room and informed her that this was in fact a study on contemporary racism. Beth then remembered the other graduate students casually making derogatory remarks about another student, who was also African American. The debriefing graduate student gave her some paperwork to read about the study's procedures and aims and sent her on her way. Reflecting on her experience, Beth felt regret and disappointment. Why had she been deceived?

There is something deeply problematic about employing deception in the search for truth. Yet deception has played a prominent -- and many would say integral -- role is psychological research for well over a century. A participant who enrolls in a research study is often misled about its real purpose, the responses researchers are actually monitoring, and the true identity of fellow "subjects." In some cases, participants are not even informed that they are involved in a research study. How did the tradition of deception develop in psychological research, where does it stand today, and what are the problems with its ongoing use?

Numerous rationales may be offered for deception. One is that deception is all around us, permeating fields such as advertising and politics. Proponents suggest there is no reason to hold psychological researchers to a higher standard. Another is the argument that subjects are not really harmed. Feelings may be hurt, but no one is being asked to donate blood or sacrifice a limb under false pretenses. The most frequent argument is that much research would be impossible without deception. Just as physicians check respiratory rates without calling attention to a patient's breathing, psychologists need to observe behavior when subjects are unaware. Deception is rationalized as the only way to reproduce natural behavior in the laboratory setting.

Over the first two-thirds of the 20th century, deception became a staple of psychological research. According to a recent history of deception in social psychology, before 1950 only about 10 percent of articles in social psychology journals involved deceptive methods. By the 1970s, the use of deception had reached over 50 percent, and in some journals the figure reached two-thirds of studies. This means that subjects in social psychology experiments -- at least those that survived the peer-review process and made it to publication -- had a better than 50-50 chance of having the truth withheld from them, being told things that were not true, or being manipulated in covert ways.

The more we expect to be deceived, the less authentically our responses represent what we really think and feel.

Proponents of deception argue that they are using little lies in order to uncover large truths. Many subjects voice no objection, and sophisticated ethical defenses of the practice are readily provided. In a perfect world, perhaps, deception would be scrupulously avoided, but ours is not perfect, so proponents argue that compromises must be made. Of course, they admit, researchers should do their best to avoid deception wherever possible, employing it only as a last resort. In some cases, it may be possible to develop alternative methodologies that do not require it. In the end, however, deception is an indispensable tool in the pursuit of knowledge.

Presented by

Richard Gunderman & Laura Kane

Richard Gunderman, MD, PhD, is professor of radiology, pediatrics, medical education, philosophy, liberal arts, and philanthropy, and vice-chair of the Radiology Department, at Indiana University. His most recent book is X-Ray Vision. Laura Kane is a student at Indiana University.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Health

Just In