Ethics Rounds

Ethical Standard 8.07, Deception in Research, illustrates how the Ethics Code incorporates our profession's core values in resolving ethical dilemmas.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my position as director of APA's Ethics Office is the opportunity to speak with students about their training in ethics. It always makes for a lively and interesting discussion when students want to go beyond the text of the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (2002) to understand why the Code is written in a particular way.

The current version of the code is the result of a five-year revision process that entailed seven revision drafts; every word is the result of careful review and consideration. When I speak with students, I try to emphasize that behind every rule in the Ethics Code there is a reason, and behind every reason there is a value. We want to push ourselves to a deeper reading of the code by asking questions that bring us progressively closer to the foundations of our ethical positions. Ethical Standard 8.07, Deception in Research, gives an excellent example of this process.

8.07 Deception in Research

(a) Psychologists do not conduct a study involving deception unless they have determined that the use of deceptive techniques is justified by the study's significant prospective scientific, educational, or applied value and that effective nondeceptive alternative procedures are not feasible.

(b) Psychologists do not deceive prospective participants about research that is reasonably expected to cause physical pain or severe emotional distress.

(c) Psychologists explain any deception that is an integral feature of the design and conduct of an experiment to participants as early as is feasible, preferably at the conclusion of their participation, but no later than at the conclusion of the data collection, and permit participants to withdraw their data. (See also Standard 8.08, Debriefing.)

Note four aspects of Ethical Standard 8.07. First, the standard itself is built upon an ethical dilemma. One part of this dilemma is the value of advancing the science of psychology, a value central to the Association's mission as APA's core texts emphasize. According to APA's Vision Statement, approved by the Council of Representatives in February 2009:

The American Psychological Association aspires to excel as a valuable, effective and influential organization advancing psychology as a science, serving as … the major catalyst for the stimulation, growth and dissemination of psychological science and practice.

APA's Mission Statement likewise states, "The mission of the APA is to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people's lives," while the Association Bylaws begin, "The objects of the American Psychological Association shall be to advance psychology as a science … by the promotion of research in psychology." Principle B in the Ethics Code, Fidelity and Responsibility, also highlights the centrality of advancing the science of psychology by stating that psychologists "are aware of their scientific responsibilities to society."

The ethical dilemma arises by virtue of Principle C in the Ethics Code, Integrity, which states, "Psychologists seek to promote accuracy, honesty, and truthfulness in the science, teaching, and practice of psychology." The use of deceptive techniques in the service of advancing the science of psychology presents an ethical dilemma because it brings into conflict two of psychology's core values: Advancing science through research and promoting truthfulness. Ethical Standard 8.07 helps psychologists resolve this conflict.

A second apsect of Standard 8.07 important to note is that the standard incorporates a philosophical approach to help resolve the conflict, utilitarianism, most often associated with John Stuart Mill. A utilitarian approach assesses an act by its consequences (thus utilitarianism is sometimes referred to as a form of "consequentialism"). To judge an act according to a utilitarian approach, the question is posed: What consequences are likely to follow this act? Paragraph (a) in Standard 8.07 gives a good example of a utilitarian analysis "the use of deceptive techniques is justified by the study's significant prospective scientific, educational, or applied value." The phase "is justified by" reveals a utilitarian perspective: The good that comes from the deception must outweigh the use of a technique that is not honest and truthful. Our initial ethical analysis in Standard 8.07, therefore, involves weighing and balancing the use of deception with the knowledge we gain from employing a deceptive technique. To be acceptable under Standard 8.07, the balance must weigh in favor of the knowledge we gain.

Paragraph (b) of Standard 8.07 places a limit of the use of a utilitarian analysis by stating that psychologists do not engage in deception "reasonably expected to cause physical pain or severe emotional distress." According to paragraph (b), there is no justification for deception in these circumstances; our utilitarian analysis has reached the limit of its applicability. Put another way, when a deceptive technique is reasonably expected to cause physical pain or severe emotional distress, our ethical analysis no longer consists of exploring what good the research may yield. Even if great strides in scientific knowledge could be made through a deception study involving physical pain or severe emotional distress, the study would nonetheless be unethical according to the APA Ethics Code. There is no longer a weighing and balancing of the goods that will come from the deceptive technique. Nonmaleficence, "do no harm," now becomes central to the Standard: Advancing science cannot justify inflicting these harms.

The third aspect of Ethical Standard 8.07 important for our discussion comes in paragraph (c), where the standard turns to Principle E in the Ethics Code, Respect for People's Rights and Dignity. Principle E begins, "Psychologists respect the dignity and worth of all people, and the rights of individuals to privacy, confidentiality, and self-determination." Principle E is the foundation for obtaining informed consent, the process by which psychologists protect and promote an individual's self-determination. The Ethics Code places great emphasis on informed consent and by extension on the value of self-determination; five ethical standards in our Ethics Code have the term "informed consent" in their title.

While obtaining informed consent normally commences at the initiation of the professional relationship, be it therapy, research or education, this process is reversed in Ethical Standard 8.07. Because deception masks the true nature of the research, informed consent must follow rather than precede the data collection. Timing is nonetheless important to Standard 8.07, which states that participants are informed about the deception "as early as is feasible" and in any case "no later than at the conclusion of the data collection." The endpoint—the conclusion of the data collection—is that point in time when deception no longer serves the purpose of advancing science and so loses its ethical justification.

Fourth and finally, Standard 8.07 states that participants in deception studies are allowed "to withdraw their data." This final clause in the standard highlights the value of self-determination in Principle E, by placing the value of self-determination over the value of advancing science, a reversal of the standard's earlier balance. The value of self-determination yields to advancing science in the initial part of the Standard 8.07 because otherwise the research could not be conducted; in the latter part of the standard advancing science yields to self-determination, which brings Standard 8.07 back in line with other ethical standards that permit research and other psychological activities only after informed consent has been obtained.

Both the power and the danger of deception as a research technique are amply demonstrated by our profession's history. The caution in the Ethics Code surrounding the use of deception is made evident in the final clause of paragraph (a), which says that psychologists use deceptive techniques only when "effective nondeceptive alternative procedures are not feasible." This clause creates a figure-ground of ethical acceptability for the use of deception: Deception is allowed only in those studies that could not effectively be conducted without using deception.

Ethical Standard 8.07 takes competing values and structures the use of deception so that advancing science, avoiding harm, and respecting self-determination are all part of the ethical equation. Each clause in the standard represents a negotiation among these competing values. In examining how the clauses are put together, we can see the standard's rules and reasons. As we read the Ethics Code in this manner, we may come to a greater appreciation of psychology's values and see more clearly how those values are expressed in the work psychologists do.


Stephen Behnke, PhD, JD, directs APA's Ethics Office.

'Ethics Rounds' now available as CE

Previously published "Ethics Rounds" columns have been converted into CE programs.