Using Deception in Research

Studies may use deception if it is necessary to answer the research question.

Disclosure of Research Hypothesis

If, in order to counter the demand effect, researchers cannot disclose their research hypotheses, the failure to disclose is not considered deception.

General statements about the purpose of the research, as well as a full description of the research tasks and activities, should be provided in the consent form.

Inappropriate Use of Deception

The IRB discourages the use of deception when:

  • Alternative methods can be used that will yield valid study results.
  • The deception deprives participants of the opportunity to protect their own interests.
  • The missing information affects the participants’ ability to assess the risks of participation.

Justification for Using Deception

If the subjects will be deceived, the ethical and regulatory requirement to fully inform subjects must be waived by the IRB.

There are three criteria that must be met in order for the waiver to be approved. In addition, it is usually necessary to debrief subject after the research.

  1. The risk must be no more than minimal.

“Minimal risk means that the probability and magnitude of harm or discomfort anticipated in the research are not greater in and of themselves than those ordinarily encountered in daily life or during the performance of routine physical or psychological examinations or tests.”

  1. The rights and welfare of the subjects will not be adversely affected. 
  2. The research could not practicably be carried out without the waiver. This does not mean that it would be inconvenient to conduct the study without the waiver. It means that deception is necessary to accomplish the goals of the research.

Ameliorating Deception

Protocols must include procedures for ameliorating possible negative effects of deception. In addition to thorough debriefing that explains the need for deception, emphasis should be placed on correcting any false feedback given to participants about their performance, competency, or other personal characteristics.

Participants whose behavior was recorded without their knowledge, such as during a fake “break” in study, should be given the opportunity to request that the recording be destroyed.

If a study was designed to provoke negative behaviors, participants should be told that most people react the way they reacted and that their behavior was a normal response.


Debriefing for participants who were deceived includes a description of the deception and an explanation about why it was necessary. The discussion should presented in lay language and should be sufficiently detailed that participants will understand how and why they were deceived.  If the study included multiple deceptions, each should be addressed.

If participants were filmed without their knowledge, they must be given the option to ask that the researchers do not use the film

Delayed Debriefing

Delayed debriefing is an option if participants are part of a group that may share information about their experience in the research.

If researchers will use a delayed debriefing, the consent form must state additional information will be available at the study and participants’ contact information should be collected. The contact information should not be linked to the study data.

Informed Consent

Informed consent forms and scripts may never contain deception. Researchers may not make false statements during the consent process.

Review Type for Protocols Involving Deception

Research involving deception cannot be screened for exemption.

Generally, research using the following deceptions may be reviewed using expedited procedures:

  • Confederates: Attributing statements to or providing feedback from non-existent individuals or confederates in another room. Using actors in videos presented to participants.
  • Giving people impersonal false information:  Information about the performance of groups that participants will use to measure their own performance, for example, “Most Duke students can solve these anagrams in 3-7 minutes.”
  • Priming designed to focus participants’ attention or awareness, but not on a sensitive topic. For example, having participants complete sentence scramble tasks with words affiliated with different goals.
  • Presenting false scientific “facts,” articles, or profiles of individuals or companies.
  • Studies that activate stereotype threat.
  • Experiments in which participants are told that two studies are unrelated when the first study is the manipulation, depending upon population and nature of manipulation.

Generally, research using the following deceptions will be reviewed by the full IRB:

  • Any use of confederates in which the confederate engages in in-person dialog with a participant. For example, attempting to persuade a participant to make a certain decision or enter into a negotiation process.
  • Studies in which participants are given false feedback about their own attributes, performance or abilities, for example, a manipulation in which students are told that their performance falls in the lowest quartile of Duke students following the completion of a task.
  • Any study in which debriefing cannot be undertaken because to do so would cause more harm than good or when participants cannot be contacted, e.g. some types of Internet research.
  • Any study involving subliminal priming.
  • Covert observation and/or videotaping.
  • Mood manipulations designed to induce feelings of guilt, sadness, depression.
  • Any study in which participants are given false information about themselves in phase one of a study that is not corrected until a later session.
  • Any deception of minors.
  • Any study in which the researcher assumes a false identity.
  • Manipulations designed to elicit behaviors about which participants’ may feel shame or other strong negative emotions.


Campus IRB


Campus IRB, Campus IRB Policies