The American Journal of Bioethics

Deceiving Without Debriefing: A Pragmatic Overreach?

Deception is widely used in social and behavioral research. It is used to learn about human behaviors that would otherwise be difficult if not impossible to reliably investigate. Psychologists have long recognized the ethical dilemma posed by the use of deception as a conflict between the interests of society—the value of the knowledge learned for the benefit of the greater good—and the rights of the individual (Seeman 1969). From a regulatory viewpoint, the use of deception with or without debriefing is permissible if the deception is necessary and justified and the regulatory requirements are satisfied (Office for Human Research Protections [OHRP] 1993).

Failure to acquaint potential subjects with the research procedures is generally considered a violation of the basic principle of respect for persons, a principle that is expressed through the regulatory requirement of voluntary informed consent (National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research 1979). To accommodate the use of deception, the federal regulations allow for an institutional review board (IRB) to grant a waiver for some or all of the required elements of informed consent, provided it finds the following: The research is minimal risk; by granting the waiver the rights and welfare of the subjects will not be adversely affected; the research could not be carried out without the waiver; and when “appropriate” the participants will be given additional information at the conclusion of the study (45 CFR 46.116(d)).